ALSO ON SLAM!
Thursday, October 14, 1999
Can it be true -- the first-place Vancouver Canucks?
Underachieving to undefeated.
Canuckleheads no longer.
OK, it's still early, but in Lotusland there is an unmistakable air of well, winning.
Gone is the controversy, the insanity, the battles ... Mike Keenan.
Undefeated in three games heading into last night's division battle with the Calgary Flames, the buzzwords around the Canucks dressing room were strangely foreign, seemingly out of place.
"We're playing good hockey and, most importantly, we're finding a way to win," said centre Todd Bertuzzi.
At 6 ft. 3 in., 235 lbs., Bertuzzi's emergence as the offensive force he's always been expected to evolve into is another reason.
But more than anything, this is a team, indeed, a city, that has had its fill of losing.
"We've had enough turmoil in this city," says Bertuzzi.
"It's about time we got to a positive attitude and start enjoying the success that this team can have. I think with this start, the fans are beginning to come out again and that will make it a lot better.
"You know, there was a huge effect on the ice from all the turmoil. I think when upper management/ownership is having trouble, it leaks down to here (dressing room) and creates controversy and trouble.
"Unfortunately, this franchise has had that for too long and right now I think we are stable and there aren't too many problems up there and therefore not down here."
Up there, of course, refers to the thinly- disguised battle between the huge personalities of GM Brian Burke and Keenan.
But the demise of the Canucks started long before that feud. The team that battled to the Stanley Cup finals in 1994 has been in a tailspin ever since.
They still may be. A soft early schedule won't see a real test of games until next month. But give the Canucks credit so far.
This ain't the disaster we're used to seeing in GM Place.
They've done it with a balanced lineup -- four lines producing offence. The addition of speedy Steve Kariya has rejuvenated former Flame Andrew Cassels and the ever-underachieving Alex Mogilny. Mark Messier is playing less but better and Bertuzzi is proving to be a force on a good third line.
"The stability we have now, especially having the coach and the GM on the same page, makes a big difference," said veteran Markus Naslund.
"There had been a lot of players come and gone with the Keenan era, so that makes it tough having new guys in the lineup every year and sometimes every game. But also, we all came back this year with a fresh start.
"It's been two really tough years where hockey hasn't been a whole lot of fun. It's just good to get back to a winning program.
"It's tough to pick the lowest point, but any time you are not even close to making the playoffs, it's really tough. Hearing the fans boo you in your own rink ... it really hurts.
"That's what we want to try and avoid this year.
"For us to be successful, we have to have more than one or two lines chip in. It's so much easier because you know you don't have the pressure of scoring every night.
"We were a little bit lucky with the schedule, but this is what we wanted to get a little bit of a confidence boost. There are still 79 games left and we haven't made the playoffs yet, but at least we are going in the right direction."
The jury is still out on whether the Canucks' rise to the top is more than an early-season anomaly.
But for the time being, this is a team that believes it has turned the corner to respectability.
Sometimes, that's the toughest part of becoming a winner.