The charity golf game, the day before training camp starts, is supposed to be a relaxed, good time – but for the past several years in suburban Vancouver, a cloud tinged with edges of black hung over the hockey team.
Two years ago, it was the looming lockout and the unexpected return of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who had been set to be traded in the summer but it never happened. Instead, Luongo stared down a swarm of reporters and cameras before he teed off.
Last year, it was a general frisson at the annual Jake Milford charity golf tournament at Northview Golf & Country Club, an air of tension under the new coach, John Tortorella. It was a forced version of loose and relaxed.
This year, the atmosphere was indeed casual, as the bonhomie of the new bosses – Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins – set the tone. Amid the more sincere smiles, however, the outlook is worsened from previous years, the Vancouver Canucks now an outsider, not a contender.
There are a lot of players with an eye to redeem themselves, revive their game – it is the art of forgetting, and remembering, forgetting what went wrong and remembering what has gone right.
It begins, again, with a goaltender. Ryan Miller is the team's marquee free-agent signing, a 34-year-old who was a lifer in Buffalo before a brief, so-so stop in St. Louis last spring. He arrives in Vancouver on a mission to prove he is the goaltender who was considered one of the league's best.
Miller posed a save-percentage of 0.923 in 40 games in Buffalo last year, which fell to 0.903 in 19 regular-season games for the Blues, and 0.897 in six playoff games, two wins to start and four losses to end.
"It was a little bit more of a challenge than I thought," said Miller on Wednesday of the move to St. Louis from Buffalo.
Wearing a grey Canucks ball cap, Miller has been working out in casual on-ice sessions this month with his new teammates. He stressed the importance to him of feeling part of a team, of the city.
For Miller, on the ice with the Sedins and other Canucks, the veteran netminder sees the making of a revival.
"It makes sense this team should be able to compete and push," Miller said.
While woeful is the tag that stamped the 2013-14 Canucks, the team was less monotone than the end-of-year review sounds. In the first half, the Canucks were 23-11-7 and scored 2.7 goals a game. It was the disaster of a second half, 13-24-4 and two goals a game, that sunk the team.
Desjardins, a rookie NHL head coach at 57, said everyone around the team is keen to get going, forget about last year, to stop parsing what went wrong, and how.
"Everybody wants to start new this year," Desjardins said. "What happened last year is gone and that's the way everybody wants it. It's easy to clean the slate, it's easy to look ahead, and be optimistic about the year."