Dark Moments in BC Sports History

Originally published in Full Tilt in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

The official motto of British Columbia is “Splendour Without Diminishment.” But even if you agree with former premier Bill Vander Zalm that life here in Lotusland is fantastic, there’s no denying the lows are just as much a part of our sporting tradition as the highs. So, disregarding Monty Python’s admonition to “always look on the bright side of life,” here are some of the darkest sports moments in our young province’s history.

1926, COUGARS DEFANGED: In 1925, the Victoria Cougars won the Stanley Cup. The professional Western Canada Hockey League franchise was the last non-NHL team to achieve this feat, defeating the Montreal Canadiens by a 3-1 series margin. (Did the Garden City’s genteel citizens chant “Habs Suck”?) Sadly, the financially strapped WCHL folded the following year. Victoria’s players were mostly bought up by Detroit’s NHL expansion team, which was first named the Cougars (1926-30), then the Falcons (1930-32), and finally the Red Wings (1932-present). Oh well. Maybe Steve Yzerman will buy a retirement home in Victoria.

1936, DENMAN INFERNO: The Denman Street Arena in Vancouver cost an eye-popping $175,000 and seated 11,000 when it opened in 1911. Second in size only to New York’s Madison Square Garden among North American rinks, the venue hosted events like the Vancouver Millionaires’ 1915 Stanley Cup victory over the Ottawa Senators and a Jack Dempsey-James Braddock fight. But on August 20, 1936, it burned down shortly after a Max Baer boxing exhibition.

1979, BRUINS BRUTALITY: Today’s most vicious hockey fights pale in comparison to what happened in WHL action at Queen’s Park Arena on March 22, 1979. With seconds left in a 4-1 New Westminster Bruins home loss to the Portland Winter Hawks, Bruins coach Ernie “Punch” McLean put his goons on the ice to ignite a brawl. The rest of the Bruins jumped over the boards to join in, but opposing coach Ken Hodge restrained his bench. So it was 16 Bruins versus five Hawks, and Portland’s Blake Wesley and Jim Dobson were beaten into a pulp by multiple attackers. Seven Bruins were subsequently charged by police and received conditional discharges.

1982, LAMENT FOR LEVEILLE: It seemed like Normand Leveille had everything going for him. In his sophomore season with the Boston Bruins, the talented Quebec-born forward was on a point-per-game streak when he suited up for a tilt versus the Canucks on October 23. But after the first period at the Pacific Coliseum, the 19-year-old suffered a brain aneurysm due to a congenital condition and was rushed into surgery in Vancouver General Hospital. Although Leveille survived, his motor skills were impaired and he never played hockey again.

1984, THE BILL WAS WRONG: Bill LaForge coached the Kamloops Junior Oilers to a berth in the 1984 Memorial Cup, but unfortunately his talents didn’t extend beyond junior hockey. The Vancouver Canucks found that out when they made the 33-year-old the youngest bench boss in team history that same year. Touting his “Ph.D” hockey philosophy (Pride, Hustle, Desire), LaForge forced the losing squads in training camp scrimmages to run a mile in full equipment. He bizarrely praised players for dropping the gloves in a 13-2 loss to Philadelphia early in the season. After posting a dismal 4-14-2 record, LaForge was fired on November 20.

1984, WAVE GOODBYE: The Vancouver Whitecaps electrified hometown fans when they captured the 1979 North American Soccer League title by defeating the Tampa Bay Rowdies in New York. Yet the team faltered when it decided to relocate from the 32,000-seat outdoor Empire Stadium to BC Place Stadium four years later. The ambience just wasn’t the same. Attendance sagged, and the Whitecaps washed out of business in 1984.

1986, THE NEELY DEAL: On June 6, 1986, the Canucks traded budding power forward Cam Neely and their first-round pick in 1987 (Glen Wesley) to Boston for Barry Pederson. GM Jack Gordon hoped Pederson would return to the 100-point form of his early NHL years, but the centerman never had than 76 points in one season with Vancouver. Meanwhile, Neely blossomed into a Hall-of-Famer in Beantown, notching a remarkable 395 goals in 726 games while playing a bruising physical style. Ouch!

1987, DRUGS AND DECEIT: Jiri Bubla was an all-star blueliner with Czechoslovakia in the 1970’s and logged five solid seasons on Vancouver’s defense in the 80’s. But following his retirement from hockey, the 37-year-old was arrested at the 1987 IIHF World Championship in Vienna and charged with involvement in a drug trafficking ring. Convicted of smuggling four kilograms of heroin, he served nearly four years in an Austrian jail. Today, Bubla runs a trucking business in the Vancouver area.

After Brian “Spinner” Spencer moved to Florida, his life just kept spinning out of control. The Fort St. James-born veteran of 553 NHL games with the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Sabres, and Penguins was charged with first-degree murder in 1987 and acquitted after a 10-month trial. But just three months, he was shot to death in a robbery while purchasing cocaine in Riviera Beach. Back in 1970, a similar tragedy had befallen Spencer’s father, who was killed by RCMP officers in a shootout after taking hostages at a Prince George TV station because it was showing the Canucks instead of his son’s game with Toronto.

1989, KRUTOV TANKS: In the 1980’s, Vladimir Krutov was one of the greatest forwards in international hockey. Winning two Olympics, five World Championships and the 1981 Canada Cup with the Soviet national team, the high-scoring winger was nicknamed “The Tank.” But Krutov was a massive bust when he suited up with the Canucks for the 1989-90 season. He tallied just 11 goals and 34 assists, with his weight ballooning out of control. Vancouver cut him at training camp the following year, and Krutov’s career petered out in Europe by 1996.

1991, FLUTIE FLIES THE COOP: You’d think that after quarterback Doug Flutie set new CFL records with 730 pass attempts, 466 completions, and 6,619 yards, the BC Lions would have found a way to keep him. Instead, the league MVP was lured off to Calgary, signing a lucrative three-year pact with the Stampeders on March 23, 1992. Flutie won three Grey Cups and numerous individual honors before heading back to the NFL. We’ll never know where he could have led the Leos in the 90’s.

1994, THE STANLEY CUP RIOT: As if losing Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals to the New York Rangers on June 14 wasn’t bad enough, some Vancouver idiots decided to physicalize their frustrations. With 70,000 people jamming downtown, trendy Robson Street turned into a war zone as looters smashed store windows, and 150 rioters faced charges after clashing with police armed with tear gas. The mess cost $1.1 million to clean up. The cost was even greater for a 19-year-old man who was hit with a police rubber bullet and sustained brain damage.

1994, STEROIDS AND SADNESS: Horace Dove-Edwin came out of nowhere to win the silver medal behind Linford Christie in the 100-metre sprint at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. But the Cinderella story of the self-trained 27-year-old runner from Sierra Leone didn’t have a Disney ending. A few days later he was disqualified after testing positive for the same steroid that made Ben Johnson infamous at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Though disgraced, Dove-Edwin still maintains his innocence today.

1996, NOT A GREAT DAY: When Wayne Gretzky became an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 1996, he nearly signed with the Canucks but opted for New York instead. What went wrong? “[The Canucks] thought I was going to shop the offer and use it to get more money out of the Rangers,” Gretzky later told the Province newspaper. “First of all, it was my perfect right to do that. But secondly, I would never do that to them. I was there to negotiate in good faith.” Yet after an intense negotiating session in Seattle, the Great One received a late-night phone call from Orca Bay’s Stan McCammon, who told him the team’s offer was only on the table for that night–take it or leave it. Irked by the pressure tactics, Gretzky inked a two-year pact with the Rangers July 21.

1997, MOOSE CASHES IN: It costs $18 million US to build a new high school. Too bad the Canucks didn’t invest in education instead of lining Mark Messier’s pockets to that tune. Signing the bald-headed center as a free agent on July 30, 1997 was one of the biggest busts in team history. Not only did the Canucks fail to win the Stanley Cup, but they also missed the playoffs throughout his three-year tenure. Messier tore apart the dressing room, ousting Trevor Linden from the captaincy and getting far too cozy with erstwhile coach Mike Keenan. The “greatest leader in pro sports”? Apparently that routine was only reserved for Edmonton and New York.

With the Canucks mired in a seven-game losing streak early in the 1997-98 NHL season, you could argue team president and GM Pat Quinn deserved to be fired on November 4. He’d failed to revitalize the lineup that marched to the 1994 finals. But that said, Orca Bay CEO Steve Bellringer’s brusque handling of the announcement came off as classless, considering that the 54-year-old Irishman had done what no other Vancouver GM had done before: making the Canucks into a respected, contending franchise most seasons.

2000, THE MCSORLEY-BRASHEAR INCIDENT: The final act of Marty McSorley’s NHL career tarnished the veteran tough guy’s image. Playing for the Boston Bruins, the 36-year-old fought Canuck enforcer Donald Brashear in the first period at GM Place on February 21 and got thrashed. He later failed to goad Brashear into another fight. Then, with seconds left in a 5-2 Vancouver win, the hulking defenseman swung his stick at Brashear’s right temple. Brashear fell to the ice, hit his head, and lay there bloodied and twitching. He would recover, though, to pursue his NHL career. McSorley was suspended for a year and never played in the NHL again. Charged with assault in Vancouver court, he was found guilty but was only sentenced to 18 months on probation.

2000, CANADIAN SUNSET: Yes, Vancouver still has a baseball team called the Canadians, but watching the Single A Northwest League affiliate of the Oakland Athletics at Nat Bailey Stadium just isn’t quite the same. The old Triple A incarnation, which won the 1999 PCL title, was relocated the following year to Sacramento, which offered owner Art Savage a sweetheart deal with a new $43-million ballpark. Thus ended a 22-year era.

2001, A GRIZZLY FATE: When Chicago billionaire Michael Heisley bought the struggling Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000, he said: “I am committed to doing everything in my power to make the Grizzlies franchise a success in Vancouver.” But seemingly motivated by finances alone, Heisley didn’t keep that promise. On April 18, 2001, Vancouver’s pro basketball team played its final game versus Golden State. The Bumbling Bears relocated to Memphis for the 2001-02 campaign and remain there.

2004, THE BERTUZZI-MOORE INCIDENT: In today’s media-saturated world, this one’s been done to death. So let’s do it one more time. On March 8, 2004, Canucks power forward Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Colorado journeyman Steve Moore from behind, seeking revenge for a Moore hit that concussed Vancouver captain Markus Naslund. The 6-3, 245-pound Bertuzzi was suspended from hockey for 17 months and pled guilty to assault, receiving a conditional discharge and one year’s probation. His play in 2005-06 has been inconsistent, to say the least. Moore, who hasn’t played since due to his neck injuries, has launched multiple lawsuits versus Big Bert.

Cold as Ice: Bad Canuck Moments

1982: Defenseman Harold Snepsts hands away the puck to New York Islanders sniper Mike Bossy for the OT winner in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals.

1989: In Game Seven of the Smythe Division semi-finals, Calgary ousts the underdog Canucks with a Joel Otto overtime marker that (to Vancouver fans) was kicked in while Otto was interfering with Kirk McLean in the goal crease.

1995: Facing Chicago, Pavel Bure tears his ACL on a Steve Smith hit behind the Hawks net. The Russian Rocket’s right knee is never the same again.

2002: With the Canucks enjoying a 2-0 series edge over Detroit, goalie Dan Cloutier allows Nicklas Lidstrom to score the Game Three winner from center ice. The Wings go on to win the Stanley Cup.

2003: In the second round, Cloutier melts down again and his team follows suit as Vancouver blows a 3-1 series lead versus Minnesota.

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