Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is it really 40 years?

I'm having enough trouble coming to terms with the fact that my son, Aidan, turns 24 on Saturday ... and now comes the 40th anniversary of an event I remember vividly because I was there ... and old enough to be conscious of every moment.

I refer to the Vancouver Canucks' regular season NHL debut -- Oct. 9, 1970.

It was a different time then. It was actually possible to phone a sports team and ask them to set aside a couple of tickets at the "Will Call" booth and pay for them when you got there. Mastercharge and Chargex were getting a foothold, and there was no such thing as Internet bookings. As soon as the opening date was announced, I remember writing to the Vancouver Canucks' office and stating that my dad and I would like two tickets, topmost row of Pacific Coliseum, right over centre ice, and enclosing the money order. The tickets came a couple of days later.

I'd been to games at Pacific Coliseum before. My peewee hockey coach, Ted Wetmore, sprang for tickets for us all to go to the first game in the brand-new arena in 1967 (an "interlocking" game between the Providence Reds of the American League and the Canucks of the Western League -- the Big Chickens* beat the Canucks, 3-2).

There was no question Ted had money: he owned a Volkswagen dealership in West Vancouver and kitted his teams out in blue and white sweaters with a big Volkswagen logo on the front and socks to match (this, at a time when it was considered a luxury for a team to have all the same sweaters). He was also quite the hockey player. He must have been in his early 60s when he coached us, and he would always close out our practices with a little self-indulgence: taking the puck and skating in on a breakaway against me -- the goalie. I remember his bald head and cardigan, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, old-fashioned straight stick (he hated the newly-popular curved sticks "you can't shoot a backhand with those stupid things!"), and wire-rimmed glasses. The only thing that didn't quite register in time was the puck -- until it bounced out of the net behind me. Ted (he insisted we first-name him) has probably long since shuffled off this mortal coil, but Wetmore Motors is still there at 22nd and Marine.

Anyway, enough of digressions. Dad and I did go to that first-ever Canucks game in the NHL. On that Coliseum opening night in '67, dad came along but discreetly sat in one of the last rows in the corner. I went and sat with him in the third period, and we realized we really liked the wide view you got from there. That's why I insisted, in my letter to the Canucks office, that we get seats in the last row over centre ice.

It's interesting what comes back to you when you think of something from that long ago:
-- standing ovation for Dale Tallon, who was touted as another Bobby Orr, although Hal Laycoe didn't seem to know where to play him: defence? Forward? Centre? Right wing? They were so certain Dale would be the Next Big Thing, they gave him #9, which was long regarded as the "star" number (Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Bobby Hull all wore #9; so did Wayne Gretzky in his earliest days, the story goes, as a paean to Gordie, but when he arrived at Sault Ste Marie, someone else had #9, so he switched to his famous #99). Eventually, though, Tallon was switched to #19.
-- chorus of boos for Tom Campbell, then the mayor of Vancouver. I know my parents weren't crazy about him, but really, booing the visiting politician was The Thing To Do in those days (still is, I guess). It wasn't until the home opener in 1972, when Dave Barrett, fresh off his big victory in the provincial election, was introduced for the ceremonial faceoff, that I actually heard a sitting politician actually get cheered.
-- disappointment that my radio hero, Jim Robson, was not calling the play-by-play for Hockey Night In Canada that night. Danny Gallivan came in from Montreal to do it.
-- minor disappointment that the Canucks were wearing white. Up till that time, the NHL home team wore the "coloured" uniform, while the WHL home teams wore the white uniform; I was looking forward to seeing the cool blue-and-green uni's. No joy. It would be 1975 -- when I was living in Montreal -- that I would see those in a game up-close.
-- the late George Gardner's heroics in goal. He was a great, solid backstop -- exactly what the Canucks needed in those shaky first minutes -- and a bit of a fan favourite, being one of the holdovers from the WHL team.
-- the stark reality that the Los Angeles Kings really were the better team that night. They'd beaten the Canucks twice in exhibition play.
-- the exhilaration of Barry Wilkins' goal -- as I recall, it was a low slapshot from about halfway between the point and the slot, followed by that satisfying CLANK! as it hit the back iron of the net behind Rogie Vachon and then, half a second later, the ear-splitting, stomach-loosening eruption of the crowd.
-- the final score: 3-1 LA. It was disappointing, but to an endless optimist like myself, the feeling was, "what did we expect? The team is new."

In 1979, I was walking past the Quick Stop Skate Shop on Hastings Street in Burnaby. There's still a sporting goods store on the site, but it has a different name. Hanging on a hanger was a Los Angeles Kings jersey -- purple with the gold crown on the front -- the original design; #18 on the back.

"Is that for sale?" I asked.
"Where'd you get it?"
"The boss knows the Canucks' trainer, so he got this."
"How much?"
"40 bucks."
"Wait there."

I went to the credit union, pulled out $40 (I was working on a TV series at the time, so I could afford that princely sum -- about like paying $100 today), and came back. Clearly, it was a game-worn jersey, but remember - the "sports collectible" market didn't take off until almost 10 years later.

Back at the TV studio, I wore the sweater proudly, and one of the production members, who was from LA, noted it and said, "#18 - that's Bob Berry".

I thought that was cool, because I knew Bob Berry graduated from Sir George Williams University, and so did I -- albeit many years after he did and it was called Concordia by then (1977). It took a few years for the realization to sink in.

Game-worn jersey from the 70s in Vancouver.
Bob Berry scored the first goal in the Canucks' first regular-season NHL game.
Could it be ... ???

And here we are ... 40 years later. There'll likely be a reunion of -- or at least thoughts for -- some of the principals from that night -- like Jim Robson, Orland Kurtenbach, Dale Tallon (who became a very successful general manager in Chicago). I wonder how many of us ticket-holders are still around -- there would have been 15,571 (since every Canucks' game was recorded as a sellout that year, the paid attendance figure is burned into my memory, along with the late Tom Peacock intoning "and we thank you," when he'd announce it in the third period of each game)?

Many of us would have been kids then, going with our parents. What memories do they have, I wonder? What's burned into their minds?

And one more thing: it's 40 years on -- and the Leafs still haven't won the Cup.

*The name "Reds" had nothing to do with a Communist plot brewing in New England: it was, rather, a reference to the Rhode Island Red, a chicken indigenous to the area. I have no idea how the club fared during the McCarthy era, when Cincinnati's ball club officially changed its name to the "Redlegs".

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