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Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller, left, and Quinn Hughes talk before a faceoff during against the Anaheim Ducks, in Vancouver, on March 31.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

There are few echoes at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena of the spring, now 13 years ago, when the Canucks came achingly close to winning their first Stanley Cup.

In a quiet corner underneath the stands, a small Stanley Cup final 2011 placard still hangs below an emergency-exit sign. Outside, a few blocks from the arena where Game 7 was shown on an outdoor screen to a large crowd of fans, there’s no hint of the riot, during which police cars were set ablaze, that followed the 4-0 loss.

Quinn Hughes, the 24-year-old Canucks captain and Norris Trophy favourite, was 11 when the Canucks blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads in the 2011 final. His family lived in Toronto, where his dad worked for the Maple Leafs. “I remember hearing about the aftermath of the loss,” Hughes said.

Noah Juulsen was 14, a Canucks fan who watched the games on TV with buddies on his block in Abbotsford, an hour east of Vancouver. He remembers the fervour of that spring. “In Vancouver, Langley, Abbotsford, everyone was cheering for the team.”

The one real connection between then and today is on the ice midday at a late-season practice: Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The two Hall of Famers these days work as player-development coaches. At practice, as the Canucks eye their first long playoff run in a long time – Vancouver plays host to Game 1 on Sunday night against Nashville – the Sedins fed the players pucks during drills and shovelled up snow from the goalie creases.

This edition of the Canucks boasts ample experience in the Stanley Cup final. Problem is, none of it is on the ice. The Sedins know what it’s like to almost lift the trophy. Rick Tocchet, whose hiring as head coach in early 2023 turned around the flailing Canucks, has won Cups in Pittsburgh as a player and an assistant coach. Team president Jim Rutherford helped lead Carolina and Pittsburgh to the top of the mountain.

Except for the pandemic bubble summer of 2020, Hughes and young stars such as Elias Pettersson and goalie Thatcher Demko have never played an NHL postseason game.

Tocchet tried to keep it simple as the playoffs approached. No long meetings or big spiels about the playoffs. “That’s when people get antsy,” Tocchet said. He knows the experience behind the bench is valuable, but he isn’t prone to locker room speeches about his Cup experiences. He deploys such lessons more quietly. “Personal stories – one-on-one, or with a couple guys – are more meaningful,” Tocchet said.

At the all-star break the Canucks were tied for the best record in the league, far better than was predicted at the start of the season. Since then, results were more erratic but the team did win its first division title since 2013. A solid defence and strong goaltending yielded the fifth-fewest goals in the league and the Canucks were among the best teams on home ice.

It’s been a long time since the Canucks were relevant, in the city or across the country. In 2011, the powerhouse team had been on the rise for several years. After the gutting Cup final loss, the team rallied to the best regular-season record the following year but lost in the first round.

A tailspin started when John Tortorella was hired as coach and while there were pledges of turning around the team in a hurry, rather than grinding through a rebuild, the spring of 2011 marked the last time the Canucks won a playoff round, outside the 2020 bubble. For several seasons the team was mired at the bottom of the league. It led to important draft picks: Pettersson was the No. 5 selection in 2017 and Hughes was No. 7 in 2018.

In late 2021, when the Canucks were struggling again after the brief success in the 2020 pandemic postseason, team owner Francesco Aquilini hired Rutherford. He pulled off several team-defining bets. He signed veteran J.T. Miller to a seven-year contract and Miller this year, at 31, scored a career-best 37 goals. A few months after the Miller deal, in early 2023, Rutherford traded team captain Bo Horvat after contract talks stalled.

It was the kind of team-altering trade few NHL clubs make. The Canucks had wanted to keep Horvat but needed to maintain salary-cap space to sign Pettersson. That was a lingering question mark through this season until a contract was finally inked last month.

“It’s risky,” said Rutherford of the moves. “In one sense it’s almost like playing poker. You’re making major decisions everyone knows can go either way. But if you just stand pat, that’s where you’re going to be with your team.”

The Canucks’ checkered history – 53 seasons, three Cup finals, zero championships – may stand out for the fans but for the players it’s essentially irrelevant in the sports psychology of one-day-at-a-time. That the Canucks choked in 2011 and a fiery riot ensued might as well be ancient history. What happened in the NHL when Hughes was 11, or Juulsen 14, isn’t their burden.

But Hughes, as captain, can sense the nervous and excited energy among fans at the arena. The building is full again, after some quieter losing seasons. The cheering is at “a different level than what it’s been,” Hughes said. “I know it’s been a long time since we’ve been successful, so they deserve this.” Rutherford has seen likewise. “They’re avid fans,” he said, “who have been frustrated.”

The Sedins provide a model. They don’t do interviews, leaving the spotlight for the players. For Juulsen, a defenceman with 54 games this season in and out of the lineup, the example the Sedins set and the work ethic they bring makes it clear what it takes. “The way they come in every day, their commitment,” Juulsen said. “They could have gone off and just left. But they’re still here, coming in every day.”

The last two Canucks teams that made it to the finals were playoff-tested squads that had several strong seasons. This team is a surprise. It’s the opening of a window that should run at least several years, with Hughes, Miller, Pettersson and Demko all on contract through to the end of 2025-26.

“There’s an excitement,” Juulsen said of the fans. “You can feel it. From Day 1 till now, we’ve come a long way as a group.”

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