Vancouver Canucks fans have lived this soap opera before. Their team falls one game shy of the Stanley Cup, but can’t approach that success in the seasons that follow.
A brash new coach, whose previous stint was in New York, swoops in and clashes with a face of the franchise, prompting the player’s departure. It’s the end of an era. The team sails into the abyss.
The sudden trade of goaltender Roberto Luongo had a familiar feel, reminiscent of the time in 1998 when star Trevor Linden was shipped out of town after a dispute with coach Mike Keenan, formerly of the New York Rangers, and the franchise endured an extended stretch of futility.
The team, which for a decade now has been a beacon of civic pride and a hot ticket, seems poised for a similar fall from grace on and off the ice. The Sedin twins have met an abrupt decline. And other players appear destined to follow Mr. Luongo out the door – centre Ryan Kesler was much discussed leading up to Wednesday’s trade deadline, and rumours also swirled around defenceman Alex Edler.
Those running the organization have not instilled much confidence of late. It is, for now, up to general manager Mike Gillis to right the ship. The term #firegillis trended on Twitter after it was announced Mr. Luongo, the team’s all-time winningest netminder and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been traded to the Florida Panthers for a goaltending prospect and bottom-six centre.
Head coach John Tortorella, also formerly of the Rangers, was suspended for 15 days earlier this season for his actions during a game against Calgary, and last weekend he benched Mr. Luongo for the Heritage Classic, sparking the trade.
Canucks fans, whose relationship with the goaltender was complicated, protested the benching by chanting for their on-again hero. The game marked the last time Mr. Luongo was seen in a Vancouver jersey, and the trade – in a city termed a “goalie graveyard” – was a reminder for some that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Mr. Luongo’s 2006 arrival and 2014 departure bookend the most successful run in franchise history, even if he is best remembered for the protracted controversy over whether he or Cory Schneider should be No. 1 – a controversy that transcended sport and became a civic spectacle.
“This team was as close to winning as it was in 1994,” Arthur Griffiths, the team’s owner at the time, said in an interview. “Now we’re in a situation where the team is struggling for a new identity.”
Mr. Gillis, in a conference call after Wednesday’s trade deadline, more than once mentioned the franchise has a long-term vision. “We have very high expectations in Vancouver. Our fans have very high expectations,” he said.
The peaks and valleys that made up Mr. Luongo’s time in this city have been well-documented. He was, at first, revered, a brick wall who kept his team in games it had no business winning. Then came the playoff disappointments, first Chicago, and eventually Boston.
Mr. Luongo was deemed too erratic and replaced as starter by Mr. Schneider. Mr. Gillis tried for a year to trade Mr. Luongo, couldn’t, and eventually moved Mr. Schneider instead. Mr. Luongo’s awkward marriage with the Canucks and their fans continued. But where he had once been jeered, his steadier play now brought cheers – as did his funny, self-deprecating Twitter account. And then suddenly it was over, the first major move of a retooling or a rebuild, depending on one’s level of optimism.
Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University, said trading away stars is always a risky proposition. If a team wants to pull in fans it either has to win or have famous faces, he said. The Canucks appear unlikely to make the playoffs this season and the team has now traded one of its brightest stars.
Prof. Meredith said he recently watched a Canucks game in which he saw empty seats in the stands. “When’s the last time you could see empty seats?” he asked.
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