Compared to their counterparts, the Vancouver Canucks regular season in the 1981-82 season was nothing to get excited about, and no one had predicted what would happen that spring.
The Canucks finished with 30 wins, 33 losses and 17 ties for a winning percentage of just .481. Yet those 77 points ranked as the third best year in team history, and the Canucks managed to finish second in the weak Smythe Division.
So how is it possible that a below .500 team could catch fire and come so close to being the Stanley Cup champs?
Legend has it is all because of a rowdy fan in Quebec City. On March 20, 1982, a Quebec fan lept from his seat to get involved in an altercation between Vancouver's Tiger Williams and Quebec's Wilf Paiement. The Canucks bench erupted and coach Harry Neale led the charge. He would race to the end of the bench and swung at the fan, Pierre Fournel. The resulting melee somehow brought the team of individuals closer together, and that all for one and one for all mentality almost returned the Stanley Cup to Vancouver.
Harry Neale was suspended by the NHL for 10 games for getting involved with the fan, and Roger Neilson would take over as head coach. The team would go on to finish the season as the league's hottest team, going 6-0-3. Neale would wisely allow Neilson to continue coaching the team even after the supsension had ended, choosing to remain in the pressbox.
Vancouver had home ice advantage as they faced Calgary in the first round of the playoffs. The Canucks would sweep the best-of-five series against Calgary. Captain Canuck Stan Smyl set the stage early in the playoffs, scoring just 8 seconds into the first game. Tiger Williams would score the game winning goals in games 2 and 3. Canuck player Colin Campbell insisted that a fight between Curt Fraser and Willi Plett in the game 1 was the true turning point. Plett, perhaps the League's heavyweight champ, was beaten up by Fraser, demoralizing the Flames bench while firing up an already confident Canuck squad.
In round two the Canucks played the Los Angeles Kings, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. The Kings shocked Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers by defeating them. The Canucks would handle the Kings 4 games to 1. A noisy crowd cheered deliriously as the spring of 1982 was quickly becoming a fairy tale ride that Canuck fans had never seen before.
The Canucks ventured into unknown territory for round three. They had never made it that far before, and they had to play against the heavily favored Chicago Black Hawks in the Campbell Conference Championship.
Game 1 was, up to then, the longest game and biggest win in Canuck history. The goaltending of Richard Brodeur won the game almost by himself. King Richard would stop 46 shots and as he prolonged a 1-1 tie into double overtime before Canuck newcomer Jim Nill finally netted a loose rebound for the huge win.
The Canucks would lose game 2 4-1, but it is easily the franchise's best remembered loss and the most unforgettable moment in team history. Following a number of questionable referee decisions that put a close game out of reach for Vancouver. Neilson's efforts to talk to the referee failed so he held up a white towel on a hockey stick, a gesture of surrender. The move turned out to be the anything but a sign of surrender, but instead it gave Vancouver a psychological edge that turned the momentum of the series back into the Canucks favor.
The Canucks would return to Vancouver in front of a sell out crowd, most of who were waving white towels. "Towel Power," a Vancouver playoff tradition, was born. The Canucks won game 3 4-3 in overtime.
The Canucks would also win game 4 in Vancouver before heading back to Chicago Stadium for game 5. A fight filled game which saw one scrum result in 164 minutes in penalties, the Canucks would defeat the favored Hawks in front of their won fans. They won the game 6-2, and the series 4 games to 1.
For their efforts the Canucks were presented with the Clarence Campbell Bowl, given to the winner of the Campbell Conference. More importantly, it meant the Canucks were heading into their very first Stanley Cup final!
The task they faced in the final round was the toughest yet. They would have to play just two days later against 2-time defending Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders. With names like Mike Bossy, Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Clark Gillies, many argue that this version of the New York Islanders was perhaps the greatest team in NHL history.
Of course no one gave the Canucks a chance to win the Cup, never mind come close. But no one told the Canucks that!
Game 1 was on Long Island, and it was a game that the Canucks really should've one. The Canucks scored early and stuck close with the Isles in a high scoring affair. With just seven minutes left in the third period, Jim Nill would score to give the Canucks a 5-4 lead. Unfortunately Mike Bossy, perhaps the game's greatest goal scorer, would tie the score and force overtime. In overtime he picked up a mishandled Harold Snepsts clearing attempt and scored in the final minute of the extra period. The Islanders were relieved to escape that game, while the physically tired Canucks became dejected and never recovered from that loss.
Game 2 saw the Canucks rebound well. They took a 3-2 lead after two periods but the well rested Isles took it to them in the third, scoring 4 times. The travel weary Canucks were as tired mentally as physically. The Isles had them on the ropes, leading the series two games to none.
The Canucks would return to an incredible welcome when they came back to Vancouver for games 3 and 4. One report suggest as many as 30,000 fans lined the streets and airport to cheer on their heroes!
Despite the support of the fans, the Canucks couldn't get it together in game 3. Billy Smith was sharp and stymied the few chances the Canucks would have. The Isles played a patient game, waiting to capitalize on Canuck errors, and won 3-0, which incidently was the lead they held in the series now.
Game 4 was a similar sort of story, although Stan Smyl gave the hometown fans something to cheer about with a spectacular solo effort that resulted in the only goal they would score in either of the two Cup finals game played in the Lower Mainland. Mike Bossy scored the winning goal en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff's most valuable player. The Isles won the game 3-1 and the series 4-0. For Team Cinderella, midnight had arrived.
The Stanley Cup run was unprecedented in Vancouver, and still very special. It was estimated that nearly 100,000 fans attended a parade for their heroes just one day after being defeated by the powerhouse New York Islanders.