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Somehow, this isn’t the worst start in Canucks history

Things are bad right now for the Vancouver Canucks, but they've been worse.
Bill LaForge oversaw the worst start in Vancouver Canucks history in the 1984-85 season.

The Vancouver Canucks have lost 12 of their first 16 games of the season. Their 4-9-3 record has them sitting 30th in the NHL standings, just ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks, both of whom have played fewer games.

If the Canucks keep at this pace, they’ll finish the season with a 20-46-16 record and 56 points, which would be the lowest points total by a team in a full 82-game season since the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche. Things turned around quickly for the Avalanche after that but only because they aggressively retooled around a young core, had a strong prospect pool, and didn’t have a lot of veterans on onerous long-term contracts — not things you can say about the Canucks.

While this start has been very bad for the Canucks, who truly believed they were a playoff team coming into the season, it isn’t the worst start in franchise history. It’s not even the second or third-worst.

As long-time Canucks fans know, there have been a lot of sad-sack seasons in their existence. In their first 21 seasons in the NHL, the Canucks had a record above .500 just twice. That’s over two decades of Vancouver hockey with just two seasons with a winning record.

The year they went to the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t one of those seasons, by the way. The 1981-82 Canucks were 30-33-17 during the regular season.

It’s not just the opening decades of the Canucks’ existence that have seen sorrow either. There were the dark days of Mark Messier and Mike Keenan in the late nineties and recently missing the playoffs in six of their last seven seasons. 

Along the way, the Canucks have had some truly dreadful starts and, in three seasons, had fewer points after 16 games than the current Canucks.

“Canuck players in open revolt.”

Let’s start with a season where the Canucks matched their current point total — the 1972-73 season, where the Canucks got off to a 5-10-1 start under head coach Vic Stasiuk. After their 16th game that season, a headline in The Province said, “Canuck players in open revolt.”

“I can’t play for that man,” said one anonymous player. “How can you win when you don’t want to play for the man. I used to like to play this game but now I don’t even want to go on the ice.”

“It took us two years to get rid of Hal Laycoe,” said another player, referring to the team’s previous head coach. “It looks like we’ll get rid of this one in two months.”

That player was wrong — Stasiuk coached the Canucks the rest of the season, where they finished with a 22-47-9 record for 53 points and a minus-106 goal differential. He was gone after that. 

“Getting fired is a distinct possibility.”

That was a bad start but it got worse in the 80’s. The team’s third-worst record after 16 games was in the 1986-87 season, when they were 4-10-2 under head coach Tom Watt. 

Barry Pederson, just acquired in the infamous Cam Neely trade, was supposed to help put the Canucks over the top, but he got off to a slow start in his first season with the Canucks. Compared to their compatriots in the high-flying eighties, the Canucks couldn’t score.

“Getting fired is a distinct possibility,” said Watt before the team’s 16th game. “There’s no one more aware of it than me. I think about it but you just do the best job you can every time out.”

Watt went on a tirade after game 16, according to Province reporter Tony Gallagher, who said his voice could be heard booming through the dressing room door as he tore into the players. 

“That wasn’t normal for Tom, but this wasn’t a normal loss,” said Pederson. “We’ve got to cut down on our mental errors if we’re going to improve.”

It might not have been a normal loss for the 1986-87 Canucks, who weren’t accustomed to taking leads, but it might seem familiar to the current Canucks: the team took a 3-1 lead in the first period, then let it slip away because of costly defensive errors.

The 1986-87 Canucks finished the season 29-43-8. Watt lasted the season but it was his last with the Canucks. 

To make matters worse, the Canucks didn’t have their first-round pick in 1987 — it was traded to the Bruins as part of the Pederson trade — so they missed out on having the third-overall pick, which the Bruins used on defenceman Glen Wesley.

Messier and blowing up the Canucks

The Canucks’ second-worst 16-game start came much more recently — the disastrous 1997-98 season where they started 3-11-2 for a paltry eight points.

That was, of course, Mark Messier’s first season in Vancouver. Like Pederson before him, Messier was supposed to be a game-changer for the Canucks.

Well, things certainly changed. After 16 games, general manager Pat Quinn was fired. A few games later, head coach Tom Renney was gone too, replaced by Mike Keenan. Fan favourite players like Trevor Linden, Kirk McLean, Dave Babych, and Gino Odjick were all traded. 

The team was completely blown up after their terrible start and they finished with a 25-43-14 record for 64 points. 

LaForge gets in over his head

There was one season even worse. In the 1984-85 season, the Canucks got off to a dreadful 2-12-2 start under head coach Bill LaForge.

LaForge was a legendarily bad head coach, at least at the NHL level. His intimidating style of coaching earned him some success at the junior level but he tried to coach the Canucks the same way — treating adult professionals as if they were teenagers. 

At just 32, LaForge was the youngest coach in the NHL at the time, with several veteran players who were older than he was. Instead of treating them with respect, however, he acted like they were still in juniors.

He had his players run gauntlet drills in practice — skating down the boards while the entire team laid their shoulders into the guy. One of those drills is said to have ended Darcy Rota’s career after LaForge forced him into the gauntlet after he had spinal fusion surgery in the off-season.

There are many more stories about LaForge, such as forcing junior players to eat raw hamburger or trying to get his players to sing a “fight song” after wins that probably had them grateful they only won two of their first 16 games. 

LaForge lasted just four more games with the Canucks, finally getting fired after compiling a 4-14-2 record. General manager Harry Neale replaced LaForge as head coach with himself, perhaps hoping to prove that the team he had put together wasn’t as bad as it seemed. But the Canucks weren’t that much better under Neale. They went 21-32-7 the rest of the way, finishing with 59 points and a franchise record minus-117 goal differential. 

After the season was over, Neale was out as both head coach and general manager.