Markus Naslund never got a chance to say thank you, and Canuck Nation never had a chance to say goodbye.
That, more than anything, is what the retired Canucks captain is most looking forward to Saturday as his No. 19 sweater is retired to the rafters of Rogers Arena before an NHL game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I haven't been back to see the fans, so it's going to be special," Naslund said. "I'm excited about being able to thank them."
Naslund, now 37, never got his due send off. His final game with the team coincided with what everyone knew would be the last hurrah for beloved former captain Trevor Linden.
It was April 5, 2008, and the Canucks fell 7-1 to the Calgary Flames, capping a final-week collapse that prevented them from going to the postseason. Linden said his farewells with a parade lap and received a thunderous ovation, while Naslund slunk back to the locker room after the embarrassing defeat, and admitted he was contemplating retirement. Instead, he played one more season with the New York Rangers, but he never made it back to Vancouver in a Blueshirt.
Saturday, the Canucks all-time leader in most offensive categories will receive some closure, his moment in the spotlight after a wonderful career that bridged eras. On Naslund's watch, the team went from afterthought to the talk of the town, permanently endearing itself to all of British Columbia.
"I remember GM Place at the time [of his arrival in 1996] lots of empty seats, maybe 12,000 or 13,000 people in the stands," he said. "The vibe in the city has sure changed."
Naslund, who lives in his native Sweden, will have more than 80 guests in attendance, including former linemate Brendan Morrison, who centred the fabled West Coast Express trio, the NHL's most feared triumvirate earlier this decade. Morrison, now a member of the Calgary Flames, is fitting the ceremony into his schedule, but the third member of the line, Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi, has a game in New Jersey.
"It's as great an honour as you can get," Naslund said. "It will definitely be emotional."
At his pinnacle, Naslund was named the league's most outstanding player by his peers, and was the game's best left winger. He becomes just the third Canuck to have his number retired, joining Stan Smyl and Linden, but he never imagined it would come to this. The first five years of his 15-year career were inconspicuous. Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, who was Naslund's agent more than a decade ago, said the duo used to talk about a return to Sweden because NHL life wasn't working out.
"He spent some serious time wondering if he would stay here," Gillis said. "Markus has extremely high expectations for himself, and he wasn't meeting them."
But then something clicked. Naslund realized he had to play his style, and derive joy for the game. Mostly, he had to prove to himself that he could hang in the world's best league.
"It got to the point where I knew it was my last opportunity," he said. "I started to relax, and I figured out that I needed to have fun and play my game."
That game - pinpoint wrist shots, feathery passes, long possessions of the puck - flourished alongside Morrison and Bertuzzi, and helped the Canucks become postseason contenders.
They never made it past the second round, and Naslund never achieved Stanley Cup or Olympic gold glory. But as his game began declining after the 2004-05 lockout, Naslund noticed the slippage and wasn't going to suffer it for too long.
He retired in May 2009 after a 24-goal season on Broadway, and played a half-season last year with MoDo, his beloved home club in Sweden's elite league, where he scored at a point-per-game pace.
"I always wanted to leave the game on my terms," he said. "Now, looking back, I have nothing but fond memories."Report Typo/Error