VANCOUVER – He has the best seats in the house, a pair at center ice, 10 rows up at Rogers Arena. He has had season tickets from the beginning, since the Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL in 1970. Out of the tens of thousands of the team's loyal customers, his priority number is 58.
For four decades he has waited for this moment – Game 7, Stanley Cup Final, at home. For all those years he has been coming down to the rink, investing his time and money and emotions, hoping to see the Canucks win their first championship, and it can happen Wednesday night.
"I don't even know if I can watch," laughed Doug Hager, 69, a lawyer who lives in the city. "This is tearing my heart out."
The feeling will be the same no matter where fans sit or stand in Vancouver – from the prime locations inside the arena to the streets outside, where thousands will gather to watch on giant screens as the Canucks battle the Boston Bruins one last time. It will be a mix of anticipation and excitement; tension and terror.
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Combine the passion Boston has for the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox. Subtract all of Boston's titles. Now consider that this is supposed to be the Canucks' year. "THIS IS WHAT WE LIVE FOR," screams their playoff slogan on signs and T-shirts, the words stacked in the shape of the Stanley Cup. "WE ARE ALL CANUCKS," screams another slogan. Look at all the Canucks sweaters worn around town, and it sure seems that way.
"If they can win it, this city and this province will be on such a high you can't imagine, because we've never won bugger all," Hager said. "Everybody would go to work and have a smile on their face for the next six months."
Vancouver has never had a team like this one. The Canucks have had years so lean that Hager would walk out of games after two periods, frustrated and bored. They made the Cup final in 1982 and 1994, but were underdogs and lost. In recent years they have had excellent teams but fell short in the playoffs. Then came this season. They led the league and set a franchise record with 117 points. They entered the playoffs as the favorites.
When the Canucks escaped the first round in seven games after blowing a 3-0 series lead on the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that had beaten them the past two playoffs, it seemed like a sign.
"Once we got through that," Hager said, "I thought we'd sail through the whole thing."
But they lost the next two games in Boston by a combined score of 12-1. They took a 3-2 series lead, but then they lost the next game in Boston by the score of 5-2. And now they have injuries, their stars aren't scoring, their deep defense is thin, their goaltender is brilliant or bungling with no in-between, and as everyone knows, anything can happen in a Game 7. People are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, just in case.
"Everyone should give them a pat on the back if we don't win," Hager said, before catching himself with a laugh. "Typical Vancouver outlook. 'If we don't win.' "
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They call Boston the "Hub of Hockey," but they have waited there, too. There is a statue of Bobby Orr flying through the air outside of TD Garden, but he scored that famous Cup-winning goal in 1970. There is a picture of Orr drinking from the Cup in the Bruins' dressing room, but it is from 1972.
The Bruins haven't won the Cup since, and as the Celtics and Patriots and Red Sox have all won championships in recent years, they have been trying to catch up.
"The love for hockey was always there," said defenseman Andrew Ference(notes), a Bruin since 2006. "I think the frustration kind of was bigger than the love. So over the last couple years, it's been a really concerted effort to have an identity with this club and what we're doing on the ice and off the ice. The city has responded. It's fun to be a part of, because people are proud of the Bruins and the organization. They want to have something to be proud of."
These aren't exactly the old Big, Bad Bruins. But they're a physical, hard-working, blue-collar bunch, and they bounce back.
A 2-0 deficit in the first round against the rival Montreal Canadiens? The Bruins won the series in seven. Facing the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round, the team to which they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 last year? The Bruins swept them. A 1-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning? The Bruins won that see-saw series in seven. If they win this one, they will have done it after facing 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits. They will become the first team ever to win three seven-game series in one playoff run.
Win or lose, the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoffs' most valuable player almost certainly will go to goaltender Tim Thomas(notes), who battled through the European leagues and the minors just to make the NHL at age 31, who battles on the ice with a go-for-broke style, who has battled to within a game of the Cup at age 37.
Ference has noticed little things like more people wearing Bruins hats in Boston. Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton(notes) has noticed more people noticing him. He went to a butcher shop last week that he said is in “the middle of nowhere.” He said he usually walks right in and right out, but this time, he had to stop and pose for five pictures with people.
"It's consistently grown since I've gotten here," said Thornton, a Bruin since 2007. "I mean, it's unbelievable now. It's a hockey town again. … Most of us can't really go around town without being noticed anymore, even with a hat and sunglasses on. Maybe because we have huge beards in June."
But is it the beards themselves or the reason for them? Ference pointed out that a lot of the players live downtown. They often walk to work and know their next-door neighbors. They are woven into the fabric of the city – a city that has won in other sports and has high expectations.
"So it's not about getting recognized," Ference said. "It's about having friends in the neighborhood."
* * * * *
This series will leave lasting scars. The Bruins' Nathan Horton(notes) went to the hospital with a concussion in Game 3 after a nasty hit by the Canucks' Aaron Rome(notes), who drew an unprecedented four-game suspension. No one knows when Horton will return. The Canucks' Mason Raymond(notes) went to the hospital with a broken back in Game 6 after an awkward, reckless hit by the Bruins' Johnny Boychuk(notes), who was not disciplined. If Raymond returns by November, the Canucks will consider that a victory.
This series has been full of garbage on both sides. The Canucks' Alex Burrows biting the finger of the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron(notes) in Game 1. The Canucks' Max Lapierre offering his fingers to Bergeron in Game 2. The Bruins' Mark Recchi(notes) offering his fingers to Lapierre and Milan Lucic(notes) doing the same to Burrows in Game 3. Burrows, Lapierre and other Canucks – including captain Henrik Sedin(notes) – have blatantly embellished plays trying to draw penalties. The Bruins haven't been angels, either. Witness the wicked slash by Rich Peverley(notes) to the back of Kevin Bieksa’s(notes) knee, the hand-swiping and sucker-punching of Brad Marchand(notes).
This series has been overcome by noise. Smack talk from both sides, some of it real, some of it blown out of proportion by the media. Roberto Luongo(notes) is asked a question about goaltending style after Game 5. He answers it. Suddenly, he has made a simple statement or taken a shot at his critics or taken a shot at Thomas, and it explodes into controversy. It becomes a window into Luongo's fragile psyche or at least a tool for psychological warfare for the Bruins.
This series has been schizophrenic. Both teams play one way at home, another on the road. The Canucks won one-goal thrillers in Games 1 and 2 in Vancouver. The Bruins won blowouts in Games 3 and 4 in Boston. The Canucks won Game 5 in Vancouver, 1-0. The Bruins won Game 6 in Boston, 5-2.
But the best part is this – the best part. After all that has happened on the ice and off of it, it comes down to Game 7, winner take all. No one feels cheesy romanticizing his roots. Everyone has waited for this moment in his own way, from the fans, to the fans who became the players.
"When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid, you're fantasizing," said Thomas, who grew up in Michigan, north of Detroit. "Well, I was Steve Yzerman, which doesn't make sense for a goalie. But you're saying to yourself, 'Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.' You're not saying 'Game 6,' you know?"
This is what everyone will remember above all else – the injuries, the garbage, the noise, the schizophrenia, the statistics. The Canucks' Ryan Kesler(notes) was asked Tuesday if he was disappointed in his series, with only one point in six games. He is playing on an injured leg.
"Tomorrow is all that matters," he said. "Everything in the past is in the past. If we win tomorrow, we become legends."
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