The pounding of Haida drums, and the rising chorus of chants, reverberated in the confines of the Tluu Xaada Naay Longhouse in the village of Old Massett. It was a traditional song, one of hope, and happiness.
The longhouse, on Tuesday morning, was a hockey arena in miniature, the Vancouver Canucks at centre stage, Haida dancers and singers cheering – urging – on a team that two years ago almost grasped the Stanley Cup and since have churned through a soap opera on ice.
It has been a story of wrenching plot twists, punctuated by playoff failures, the arrival of a fierce new head coach, and, above all, the return of a familiar goaltender.
So before the NHL preseason begins Wednesday across North America, the Canucks retreated to the north country.
It was a journey to leave the past behind. The Canucks came to a distant corner of Canada, a wild place where the sense of spirit feels as though it permeates all things, the land, the air and the circling ravens and bald eagles above, the immense sea. The spirit echoes in the beating of drums and chants.
After ensconcing themselves in a posh fishing lodge on a small nearby island, looking to forge new bonds, the players, executive and new coaches, led by the firebrand John Tortorella landed Tuesday to a rapturous welcome in Old Massett.
It is a poor village at the tip of the Haida Gwaii archipelago and some 100 kilometres off the northwestern British Columbia mainland. The celebrations shut down the village and neighbouring Masset and the crowd of upwards of 1,000 people numbered more than the population of Old Massett itself.
“This place bleeds blue,” declared Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, at longhouse welcome before a community barbeque. “Words can’t express how much this means for these islands and our people.”
For a team that two years ago was by far the best in Canada and near the pinnacle of the NHL, and now finds itself in the position of just another contender, there is the sense that the moment for these Canucks is vanishingly small, if not passed already.
The pillars of the team, the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, turn 33 later this month.
The goaltender, spurned and returned, Roberto Luongo, is 35 in April. It was Luongo, however, who roused the biggest cheers from the Haida, long bellows of “Luuuuu,” an emphatic embrace from fans after the grinder he has been through.
Vancouver is not where he wanted to be. Luongo had severed himself emotionally. But he is, however, back among friends. And the only thing left to do, in lieu of a future that did not emerge for anybody as desired, is redemption, the long season to unfurl and the 2014 Olympics this winter. What is left behind is “that stuff.”
“We’re friends, all these guys,” said Luongo, a carved Haida necklace on his neck and relaxed after playful games of ball hockey with locals in the gymnasium and table hockey outside, in between dozens of pictures and autographs.
“It makes it a lot easier. I just want to play hockey and move on and not worry about that stuff. It’s an important season for all of us, as a group, and myself especially.”
Redemption is the narrative of this place. In the late 19th century, the Haida were nearly demolished by the arrival of Europeans and the diseases of small pox and tuberculosis. Ancient village sites were abandoned and the survivors retreated to and regrouped in Old Massett and, further south, Skidegate. In the century-plus since, as residential schools came close to eradicating the language, and cultural cornerstones such as potlatches were banned, the Haida persevered, and their art became iconic.
The struggle goes on. The economy barely exists. Census figures have pegged unemployment at more than 30 per cent among Old Massett’s 600 or so residents. Colloquially, the figure cited is more than 50 per cent.
A seemingly desperate $2.5-million project last summer to revive the fishery, by dumping iron sulphate in the ocean to encourage the growth of plankton for salmon, drew worldwide scorn, leaving the community riven.
“We all manage here,” said retired social worker Crystal Robinson, alongside her 89-year-old mother, Mary Swanson. Hockey is a welcome reprieve. And Robinson was not short on advice for the team.
“They need one mind and one spirit,” Robinson said. She knows the squandered chance at the Cup in 2011 sits like an anvil. “You’ve got to reach higher above that. It’s about wanting. I know that they’ll get there.”
The man to help conjure and corral such a force is himself one who seeks redemption. Tortorella is on his third NHL head coaching job, almost a decade removed from the Stanley Cup and fired from New York, profane entrails in the wake, fights with players and media that left him with the reputation, in his words, of “that lunatic.”
His 55th birthday in late June, came the day before the official announcement of his hiring in Vancouver.
It is not, precisely, a kinder or gentler John Tortorella – but, possibly, one with less-wild bombast. The escape north is the right prelude.
“Instead of being in the pressure, in between periods or at practice, it starts off this way,” the coach said.
“Just so we understand one another a little bit better, as far as the people we are. It was really good. And I’m anxious to get to work.”