It was spring 1982, and the upstart Canucks were returning home after splitting the first two games of the Campbell Conference championship against a heavily favoured Blackhawks team.
When they landed at YVR and began taxying towards the terminal, two fire trucks pulled out onto the tarmac on either side of the plane forming an impromptu escort.
At first they thought a wing had caught fire. Then they saw the towels.
“They had stuck hockey sticks in their fenders with white towels tied on them,” said Norm Jewison, who served as the Canucks’ media relations liaison back in 1982. “The guys looked out the window and just though it was unbelievable.”
Little did they know what was in store for them at the Pacific Coliseum.
Towel Power had struck, and struck hard.
“It was crazy,” said Jewsion. “It was something I had never seen before. People were saying Canucks fans were stoic and never showed emotion. Well, it was just unbelievable.”
The Coliseum was packed – every single fan cheering and waving a white towel.
To this day the white towel stands a symbol of the Canucks and their unwavering resolve in the face of stiff odds.
It’s a trademark that’s stood the test of time and reminds us why we are all Canucks.
It all began late in the 1981-82 season. The Canucks were playing the Nordiques in the old Colisee.
There was no glass separating the players bench from the stands back then, and when a heckling fan started in on head coach Harry Neale, a scuffle broke out.
The Canucks bench quickly got involved and a melee erupted.
Vancouver tied that game 3-3, but lost their coach and defenseman Doug Halward who were both suspended for the final six games of the season.
The enigmatic Roger Neilson, an assistant at the time, stepped in and took the reigns. The Canucks went undefeated to finish the year and captured second place in the Smythe Division.
Sensing that the brawl in Quebec had galvanized the team and that something magical was happening, Neale approached GM Jake Milford and urged him to let Neilson continue behind the bench in the playoffs.
Vancouver trounced the rival Calgary Flames in three straight to easily take the first round, best-of-five series.
The Kings had upset the powerhouse Oilers in the first round, and ran smack into a Canucks freight train in round two.
They split the first two games in Vancouver, but the surging Canucks took then next three straight to advance to the conference final against a favoured Blackhawks team.
Led by Stan (Steamer) Smyl, Dave (Tiger) Williams, and King Richard, the Canucks marched into a cavernous Chicago Stadium and surprised their hosts in double overtime to steal game one in front of 20,000 raucous fans. Jim Nill scored the winner.
“That old Chicago Stadium was a tough, tough place to play,” said Jewison. “When they lost, the fans would shower the ice with bottles and things. It was danger waiting to happen.”
Described by many as one of the most intimidating buildings in all of sports, Chicago Stadium wasn’t nearly as kind in game two.
“We lost that game 4-1 and certainly didn’t deserve to win,” said Jewison. “We were coming off the longest overtime game in our history and might have been feeling a little smug.”
The loss wasn’t nearly as important as a simple gesture of mock surrender made by Neilson midway through the second period.
The Canucks couldn’t say out of the penalty box in that game and had fallen behind early. They were neck deep in penalties and trailing when it happened.
“Bob Myers was the referee and he had given us four straight penalties,” said Jewison. “And then when he signaled next one - before the announcement was made - Roger reached back and grabbed a spare stick and hoisted it up with a towel hanging off it.”
One, then two, then three players, all joined Neilson in the impromptu protest. Towel Power was born.
The league fined Neilson $1,000 for the flag-raising, but just as the brawl in Quebec had brought the team together, so did The Towel.
“We had absolutely no idea what was going on back home,” said Jewison. “I mean we didn’t have cell phones and the media coverage isn’t the same as it is now.”
Game three back in Vancouver was magical. More than 16,000 rabid, towel-waving fans greeted their returning heroes.
“It really was crazy, with the visual effect and the noise – nobody had ever seen anything like that,” said Jewison.
Local wrestler, football player, and all-around entrepreneur Butts Giraud, helped kick-start the Towel Power phenomena.
“We were watching the game, and when Roger Neilson put up the towel and everyone started booing, I said ‘Here’s an opportunity to do something.’”
Butts, who owned the Dog’s Ear T-Shirt Boutique chain, rallied all his suppliers and had 5,000 white towels printed with the slogan, “Canucks Take No Survivors.”
The towel, Butts famously said, “is going to be bigger than the wave.”
Butts sold 800 through his shirt stores, and the rest out front of the Coliseum as more than 1,500 people lined up for tickets to see game three.
Butts pledged to donate the bulk of his profits to a local orphan’s charity, and in return, had the towel concept promoted on the local radio station.
In the midst of a white terry towel storm, the Canucks won game three by a score of 4-3.
By the time game four rolled around, there were more than 15,000 towels in the stands and the city was awash in white lint.
Butts was so confident the Canucks would win, he ordered $8,000 worth of Stanley Cup finals pennants two days before Vancouver traveled to Chicago for game five.
Towel Power was raging so strong that B.C.’s Ministry of Tourism attempted to get in the Guinness Book of World Records by producing the world’s longest towel, and had the entire B.C. Legislature sign it.
The Canucks won game five in Chicago and advance to the Stanley Cup finals propelled by their quirky coach and a wave of towels that could soak up the Fraser.
By the time Vancouver finally bowed out to the powerhouse New York Islanders in the finals, the city was covered in towels. Giraud sold 30,000 in total and raised $23,000 for charity.
Exactly 25 years later, Towel Power is still one of the most recognizable playoff traditions in sport, and a symbol of Canucks pride everywhere.