THE MESSIER ERA FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A MID-TO-LATE-’90s CANUCK FAN WHO BARELY ACTUALLY GOT TO WATCH HIM PLAY

Written by @Jyrki21

It was the summer of 1997 and I was a university student back home in BC between seasons – or “academic years” as everyone else might call them. The Canucks had new owners and were about to unveil an entirely new look, rather than the variations on a theme that they had been going with since 1978.

Mess10

Change was afoot

During the 1996-97 season, rumors began circulating that the new ownership group planned not only to redo the uniforms, but in fact rename the team itself (to the “Orcas”, of course). In hindsight this was probably typical half-baked rumor-mongering that we now take with immediate skepticism in the Twitter age, and probably was never really true. All that said, it is something of a trope, the uninitiated, detached businessman taking over a long-revered institution and scrapping it at a moment’s notice as though its customers won’t care – it does happen in the business world, so maybe at some point there actually was that degree of tone-deafness. However, when you consider how rarely franchises just change their nicknames without some relocation-related reason (you have the Washington Bullet-Wizards and then… anything else recent at least flows from city-shuffling, like the Hornets/Bobcats/Pelicans hubbub), I still don’t think it was ever really in the cards. The team denied considering a name change when I e-mailed them in 1997, for whatever it’s worth, because the novelty of being able to e-mail a sports team at that point was still very real.

Thar she blew

The orca logo got leaked some weeks before the full uniform reveal, and there was an immediate outcry, at least once people started believing it was real. (With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, it was real).

Right away there was the critique that you still hear now, that it was a “corporate logo” advertising for new parent company Orca Bay. (At this stage I remind you that the Canucks are a for-profit corporation whose every branding move is designed to sell merchandise).

The thing is, that line of criticism is better spent on cynical ownership tie-ins between the sports team and other lines of the owner’s business – like, I guess, if the Canucks had adopted the colors and style of McCaw Cellular (not that anything was known about the company particularly), and their new mascot was Celly the Cellphone or something. There were rumors that, once the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, they’d be called the “Express” and sport FedEx colors. That’s when you can pretend the sports team is too sacred for the quirks of normal business.

But this was nothing like that – Orca Bay was literally nothing more than the parent company for the Canucks, Grizzlies and GM Place, so the only entities that the Canucks would be advertising through this supposed ploy is… themselves, really.

For sure, it was part of a whale-focused rebranding strategy, but that was as true of the very selection of “Orca Bay” for the parent company’s name in the first place (actually a pretty fair choice for a Vancouver/Seattle-based enterprise) as it was for the logo choice or Fin the Whale or anything else.

Mess09

Blue! And other blue! But different! And red! Is it red?

When the reveal finally came, the Vancouver Sun had a full-page spread of Trevor Linden donning the new uniform. (Remember, Messier wasn’t on the team yet). It got a pretty mixed reaction right away… the color scheme seemed really random and trying-too-hard, but somehow with a rather subdued palette that sounded more daring than it was (Midnight blue! Royal blue! Metallic silver! Red! Or is it maroon? But white numbers for some reason!) It also had to be the only team with a crazy new look still using the default NHL name and number jersey font. If there was a word for “zany and new yet somehow still staid and insipid” this was definitely that.

Even though I identify by far the most with the skate jersey because I grew up with it, I did like the idea of the Canucks switching away from it – it was so intertwined with the team’s bumbling reputation that it was hard to imagine the team ever winning the Cup in it, almost as though supernatural forces had conspired in June 1994 to make Nathan Lafayette hit iron just to prevent this visual.

Why am I still yammering on about the uniforms? Well they were raised in the podcast, and this is all about scene-setting. And on that note, back to the McCaws.

The absentee owners put us on the map

I think history probably judges the McCaws a bit unfairly. Yeah, the whole mystery owner thing was a bit off-putting, but as we know all too well, it’s not the worst thing in the world either. I think the constant rumors of them wanting to move the team to Seattle were bogus from the start – even with the weak Canadian dollar I don’t think Seattle would have made a better market.

And what they really did for the first time – and this ties into a bit into the mythos of the goofy team in the Halloween colors – was turn Vancouver into a hockey city that mattered. For the first time, the Canucks were rich. They were a player. Free-agency was less common back then, but you have to understand – the Canucks never, ever signed free agents. (More on the Gretzky thing below, though). Hell, even acquiring Alexander Mogilny by trade in 1995 broke some kind of glass ceiling, because the Canucks rarely ever even traded for established stars.

It’s pretty wild how to this day the fans in coastal, cosmopolitan Vancouver continue to revere hard-working lunchpail types and seemingly save their scorn and skepticism for skill players, because between naive drafting strategies and financial constraints, from 1970 to the mid-90s, Canuck fans were basically fed a steady diet of ordinary Joes and the great hope of “project” players. It seems we had come to believe this was simply our lot in life, and we didn’t deserve the Nice Things that Other Teams Get. This is why the arrival of Pavel Bure was so magnificent for the franchise (although I think this no-stars-allowed effect also actually makes the fans overstate Bure’s on-ice impact a little bit in hindsight, because he was so exceptional to that point in Canuck history).

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Gretzky totally almost came to Vancouver!
But did he, really?

In the summer of 1996, perhaps given a new arena to fill and a team trying to avoid decline with both Bure and Mogilny on the roster, the last gasp of the Griffiths ownership had actually tried to make their own splash. When the Canucks famously went after Wayne Gretzky, this was a big break from the past, but never materialized. Your podcast mentions the lore behind why Gretzky didn’t sign, having been pushed too hard by Pat Quinn after he’d supposedly given his word.

I don’t really believe Gretzky’s account of why he didn’t sign with the Canucks. I think a lot of that narrative has been pushed and maybe overstated by Tony Gallagher over the years. While I’m sure there is some truth to Pat Quinn’s over-eagerness, is it that hard to believe there was some reason for it? Even if Gretzky was pissed about Quinn’s insistence, that makes him suddenly alter a career-shaping decision just like that? He’s that whimsical? If so, it sure sounds like Quinn had reason to be distrustful.

I mean, do we really believe that Gretzky – who “brought [sic] hockey to California” and had become a Hollywood celebrity, married a model, etc. – was ready to prioritize Vancouver (a direct hockey rival of the two cities he’d mostly played in, no less), still considered a small market at the time, over New York or some other glitzy NHL metropole? His wife would allow that? There have been less-talked-about conflicting reports that Gretzky was mostly using the Canucks’ offer to drive the Rangers’ appetite and I’m frankly far more inclined to lean toward that explanation. Also, seeing post-career Gretzky turn into a bit of a running joke… does he really seem like the biggest beacon of credibility?

The core’s getting a little stale, but it’s still good! It’s still good!

Anyway, yeah, the point is the Canucks were now sitting at the adults’ table, backed by significant U.S. funds, with the memories of Gretzky spurning them fresh in their minds. The 1996-97 season was a disappointment, but the team was still in the hunt until quite late.

Realistically, the team was on the downside of its business cycle already, but tanking wasn’t really a thing in the ’90s, other than the worst couple of teams when Lemieux/Lindros were on the menu. So I think fans and management alike were less aware of the proverbial window to begin with, and never really wanted to accept rebuilding.

In spite of the natural decline, I’ll bet if you were to crunch the numbers, the team actually wasn’t that horrible, but got some pretty bad goaltending. (Sorry Kirk). Quinn stayed loyal to McLean a few years too long, and it didn’t do them many favors in 1996-97. We now know Corey Hirsch (who I felt was the better of the two) was fighting some mental health demons as well. So with an OK-ish team on paper – technically with Bure already requesting a trade, but he’d end up sticking around one more year – and the sudden, newfound willingness to make a splash, the Messier signing did seem to make some sense.

Mess01

News from the mainland: HE’S OURS

I was working as a camp counsellor in the Gulf Islands when Messier signed. So no Internet access or cellphones or anything. To this day I have no idea if there was speculative lead-up or if the Messier thing materialized out of thin air. For our part, we learned of the signing when one of the camp directors announced it at a camp gathering. (This was an eerie callback to how we learned of the Mogilny trade two summers earlier, in fact). Then no further news until newspapers were procured and Province articles (main headline: HE’S OURS!) were clipped and posted in the bathroom for meaningful reading.

Everybody freak out

As that headline suggested, people in Vancouver were stoked! Not because anyone expected him to put up gaudy numbers – when people criticize his production these days, I think that’s partly disingenuous, given his age. Of course he was expected to have Magical Leadership Qualities™ that would lift this team back into contention or something. In some ways, getting Messier was better than Gretzky for this reason.

Contrary to Geeta’s memories, I don’t think most reasonable adults thought his arrival suddenly made the Canucks anything close to Cup favorites (if there was a burst of optimism like that, if anything, it was when Mogilny was acquired). In its season preview, the Sun did have a drawing of a King Kong-like Messier hoisting the Cup from atop the Harbour Centre, but that was more aspirational than a prediction.

Everything is different now

But the break with the past… acquiring a big name (the fact that it was from the ’94 Rangers was more a feature than a glitch), having the league suddenly pay attention to us – these were all new things in Vancouver, and there was a certain euphoria about seemingly making the big time. Even though the new blue uniform was unveiled before Messier came aboard, one couldn’t help but get the feeling that it was designed specifically to accommodate this new reality. Remember what I said about the cognitive dissonance when trying to associate the skate jersey with Nice Things that Other Teams Get? There is one picture of Messier’s first practice – the new uniforms had already been unveiled, but practice jerseys hadn’t yet been produced – and Messier is wearing a black practice jersey with the skate logo, despite orca-branded gloves and pants. This image still boggles my mind, because The Famous Mark Messier in what we still thought of as the Canucks’ only regalia just did not compute.

Messier01

This phenomenon is a sort of magic that has more or less disappeared with routine free agency, the salary cap and the number of teams players go to these days. Brett Hull as a Coyote is more amusing than craaaazy in today’s world).

Mess02

Oh, it’s already awkward, is it?

And now two celebrated sore points: the captaincy and the #11.

These are two more items about which outrage has been exaggerated with the passage of time, I feel. The Internet still being quite nascent in 1997, not a lot of younger fans knew much about the history of number 11 and Wayne Maki. I had a 1991 Canucks’ yearbook, and remembered that 11 was listed in it as “unofficially retired” or something. When Messier took the number, it was less “How offensive!” and more “Oh, they can do that? Weird! I guess it wasn’t retired”.

On the captaincy, I do imagine Linden offered to turn it over (because that’s his style), but I’m sure he felt plenty of pressure to do so. I also wonder how comfortable he would have been keeping it anyway with Messier on board. But again – I mean I lived in Montreal, I didn’t necessarily have my finger on the Granville Street pulse – but to the extent I could gauge it, I don’t remember a whole lot of true ‘outrage’ among Canuck fans at the time. Maybe some concern that it wouldn’t be good for Linden’s morale or something, but more just curiosity about what was going to happen or views on what ought to happen under The Code. I mean, could anyone really imagine Linden captaining a team that had Mark Messier on it? Even Gretzky deferred his lifelong captaincy when he got to New York. It kind of seemed inevitable.

And to fans like me, fixated on this idea that the Canucks were now finally going to behave like Our Betters, I confess I kind of liked both of these moves. I didn’t want the kinder, gentler, “reissued” edition of Mark Messier where the die-cast metal has been swapped out for plastic – that almost defeats the purpose of getting a big star in the first place. If we were getting Messier, I wanted the famous Messier, the glare, the “presence”, and all he brought.

Mess05

Wait, maybe this sucks

His actual playing time, ironically, I know the least about. Of his three years in Vancouver, I spent two in Montreal and one overseas, so I didn’t actually see him play very much. But like many fans, I turned against him pretty quickly after Quinn was fired, and then predictably Mike Keenan was brought in, and all the long-time faces of the Canucks were shipped out or left (including my favorite player, Jyrki Lumme, which had such an air of inevitability about it during the 1997-98 season.)

There are a lot of parallels to what has gone on under Jim Benning, with this compulsive need to get rid of all the last regime’s tools. When Linden was traded, I taped a commemorative, hand-drawn patch of protest to my intramural hockey jersey (for real!). When Gino Odjick basically threatened Mike Keenan to his face, we all let out a shout of defiant solidarity with him.

Yeah, I wanted to the Canucks to act like Other, Normal Teams, but I wanted them to do it as the Canucks. That is, I wanted the franchise (right down to that cognitive dissonance crest they were no longer wearing) vindicated, not completely replaced by something else entirely. The point was for Messier’s presence to join the Canucks, not replace them. In a way, the team had become “the Orcas” after all – no one had any attachment to Brian Noonan or Enrico Ciccone, and the thought of a “Keenan team” made everyone queasy to begin with. I mean, it’d have been one thing if they were good, obviously, but throughout this transition they were terrible, played goon hockey, and were pretty uninspiring to watch. In 1998, all they got for their suffering and a fourth-overall draft pick was Bryan Allen in a weaker crop.

Mess07

Counterpoint: creative destruction?

As mentioned, though, the team was in its natural decline. Messier/Keenan basically forced the rebuild they needed to go through at some point anyway. (Whether a big-name free agent signing is the optimal means of doing this is up for debate… probably a very one-sided one).

The Linden trade turned out to be hugely profitable and is still paying dividends today. Keenan was the only guy willing to make the desperately needed change in goal (although the fact he included Martin Gélinas in that deal seems spiteful… and none of the pieces the Canucks got back lasted the rest of the season).

Keenan/Messier did have their defenders at the time, with a lot of resemblance to the folks who think Mike Gillis did bad things by making the Canucks better than they’ve ever been (at the time this was on Quinn’s résumé too) and Benning is, I guess, “saving” the team by sucking his way into a lot of roster turnover.

If analytics had been a thing back then, the Keenan/Messier apologists would probably also have been the people to dump on them, as they tended to overlap with those who thought “finishing your check” and “sending messages” was important (#MORETOUGHNESS), that the “country club” was the problem, that Messier’s intangibles and Keenan’s iron will would save the team.

These views were (and are) about as evidence-based and hopeful as the people who think the dudes driving around in Jeeps whooping with AK-47s aloft after toppling the government are totally going to lay the new foundation for a new and better society. But undoubtedly some change was still needed before sane people took over.

Conclusion

So why do we hate Messier? Often other fanbases ask this, and often emotions get too stirred to give a proper answer.

I still don’t really think it’s mostly about performance, although I guess all the signs are there that he genuinely didn’t care about anything. So there’s that.

As mentioned, I think the captaincy and #11 things are more heaped on after-the-fact than they were at the time.

The team did need to rebuild, and ultimately this was a pretty successful project, resulting in both the West Coast Express and Sedin-led dynasties. So it wasn’t the mere fact of turnover. I think it’s the way it was done.

Messier and Keenan both had a smug air of superiority about them, like the team was terrible and none of us dumb fans could see it, so they had to take it upon themselves to… bring in their friends? Because that’s kind of all they did. They certainly didn’t make the team better. They didn’t trade for futures or accumulate draft picks or anything more forward-thinking. To an extent the Linden trade was for futures, but Todd Bertuzzi and Bryan McCabe were already NHLers, and everything about it seemed to be a case of trying to move Linden just to show the fans who’s boss. As with Gélinas, too, they seemed to deliberately target popular or long-time Canucks in some sort of fire-cleanse because they felt they knew better.

But they really didn’t. It wasn’t a conscious rebuilding strategy so much as a reshaping of the team in their condescending image. In another parallel with Benning, the new blood that eventually led the team to new heights under the Sedins was in spite of their efforts, not because of them. I guess Keenan gets some credit for acquiring Bertuzzi, sure. And being there for the start of Markus Näslund’s ironic blossoming, but there’s pretty much no evidence that that’s what he was trying to do – he would have shipped Näslund out of town if he could. He was more interested in his guys who would rattle boards and gain “respect” or something.

Diagnosis

It was a toxic mixture of condescension, casual disrespect, spite and incompetence that led to some very dark days that the team only weathered thanks to some good fortune. (And one of the reasons a lot of people my age have PTSD with Benning, even though the approach isn’t nearly as deliberate.) And above all, it represented disappointment. Not only did the Brave New World that the Canucks seemed to be inviting in with Messier’s signing never actually materialize, but the opposite occurred – the team, new duds and all, fell on its face, making a mockery of its new standing.

Pat Quinn got fired in a rare mid-season GM change (with a lot of suspicion quickly cast on Messier’s implicit involvement), and then his replacement was a weird committee of Keenan, the unseasoned Steve Tambellini, and former BC Gas chairman Stephen Bellringer for some reason.

Even mindlessly – and expensively – copying the Other Teams like a cargo cult, we got further reminders that we weren’t at the adults’ table after all, and it would be some years before that image was repaired.

Listen to Episode #169 – Mark Messier: Forever A Canuck

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Be sure to follow @Jyrki21 on Twitter as well as his fantastic comic Benning On Empty

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2 thoughts on “THE MESSIER ERA FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A MID-TO-LATE-’90s CANUCK FAN WHO BARELY ACTUALLY GOT TO WATCH HIM PLAY

  1. Sal Barry says:

    This was an enjoyable article to read. I think any love or respect for Messier that I had dissipated with his stint in Vancouver.

    I am from Chicago, and while I tried to keep up with all of the teams, it was pretty hard to do that in 1997. I moved to college and didn’t have a subscription to The Hockey News, but I watched games when I could. So it is great to hear the perspective of someone who followed the Canucks closely back then for their take on the whole thing.

    I do wish you talked a bit more about how Messier caused a rift in the locker room. I understand that there was a faction of players still loyal to Linden, and angry that he was stripped of the team’s captaincy.

    Also, Messier later sued the team because he had a clause in his contract that entitled him to more money if he increased the Canucks’ value while he played there. I guess some judge saw it that way too and awarded more money to Moose, which is funny because I think he did more harm than good in Vancouver.

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