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Stan Smyl wasn’t supposed to be captain for Canucks 1982 playoff run

As Quinn Hughes becomes the 15th captain in Canucks history, looking back at how the tenure of the 6th captain, Stan Smyl, started.
Stan Smyl was never supposed to be the captain for the Vancouver Canucks' 1982 playoff run.

On Monday morning, the Vancouver Canucks named Quinn Hughes the 15th captain in franchise history.

The low-fuss way the Canucks announced Hughes’ captaincy brought to mind the different ways that Canucks captains have been named. 

Markus Näslund was named captain during a preseason trip to Sweden so that the announcement would be in his home country. Henrik Sedin had the “C” handed to him at the home opener by the first captain in franchise history, Orland Kurtenbach. Bo Horvat had the “C” handed to him by both Kurtenbach and Henrik in an on-ice ceremony.

Before those three, however, naming a captain was typically a lot more low-key for the Canucks and more like how Hughes’ captaincy was announced, though they were sometimes still unusual, like how Trevor Linden's captaincy actually started as a co-captaincy with two other players: Dan Quinn and Doug Lidster.

Then there’s the captaincy of Stan Smyl, the first player to ever get his number retired by the Canucks. Smyl being named captain was about as low-key as it could possibly get because it was an accident. 

Stan Smyl wasn't supposed to be the captain in 1982

Smyl was famously the captain of the Canucks during their run to the 1982 Stanley Cup Final but he wasn’t the captain of the 1981-82 Canucks. That was defenceman Kevin McCarthy.

Like Hughes, McCarthy was 23 years old when he was named captain of the Canucks in 1980 — not 1979 as is generally reported — and he served as captain for the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons. He was also the Canucks’ most dynamic defenceman, with four 40+ point seasons in his time with the Canucks. 

In the 1981-82 season, McCarthy led all Canucks defencemen with 45 points in 71 games, helping them sneak into second place in the Smythe Division, albeit 34 points behind the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers.

That was just enough for the Canucks to have home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, facing the Calgary Flames. But, on the eve of the playoffs, disaster struck.

McCarthy missed the final game of the season to serve a one-game suspension for an altercation with fans in Quebec. Because he missed the game, he decided to attend an optional practice before the start of the playoffs. Near the end of the practice, McCarthy and Curt Fraser got tangled up and Fraser fell down on top of his captain, breaking his ankle.

It was brutal luck for the Canucks, who already were dealing with injuries earlier in the season to key defencemen Rick Lanz and Jiri Bubla, leaving them with a depleted blue line heading into the postseason.

It also left the Canucks without their captain, so they turned to one of their alternates — Stan Smyl — and handed him the “C.” The first thing Smyl did as captain of the Canucks was lead them on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. 

"It was a kick in the head."

This is when things get controversial. Smyl was just supposed to be an interim captain while McCarthy was injured but, after his performance in the 1982 playoffs, the Canucks decided to take away the captaincy from McCarthy and give it permanently to Smyl.

That severely bruised the ego of McCarthy, who already had to watch his team storm their way to the Stanley Cup Final without him. After getting the "C" taken away, McCarthy flat-out demanded a trade.

“It will be better for me and the team if I get a fresh start somewhere else,” said McCarthy to the Vancouver Sun’s Arv Olson. “It was a kick in the head. I can’t see myself staying. I don’t feel comfortable about it. I have asked Harry [Neale] to trade me.”

“I just hope the guys will understand my position,” he added. “It will be too hard for me to face them after two years as captain.”

Smyl, for his part, did his best to smooth things over after he got the news that he was the new captain.

“I knew Kevin would be hurting,” said Smyl to the Sun’s James Lawton. “I knew how much being captain meant to him, how much he had put into the job. I found him in his motel room. I got hold of him and told him that what had happened was circumstance. We had to live with it. Then we went for a walk.

“I also told the manager that no way should we trade him.”

McCarthy eventually was traded but not until 1984 after playing another season and a half with the Canucks. 

Roger Neilson wasn't supposed to be head coach either 

Smyl wasn’t the only accidental leader of the 1982 Stanley Cup run. Just like Smyl wasn’t supposed to be the captain of the Canucks, Roger Neilson wasn’t supposed to be the head coach.

McCarthy wasn’t the only Canuck to get a suspension for the dust-up in the stands with fans of the Quebec Nordiques. Multiple players received suspensions of various lengths and Canucks head coach Harry Neale was suspended for ten games.

With Neale suspended, assistant coach Roger Neilson took over behind the bench. Neilson, who already had a few seasons of experience as a head coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, immediately led the Canucks on a ten-game unbeaten streak after the Nordiques debacle.

With that kind of streak and the Canucks already in the second round of the playoffs, Neale didn’t dare step back behind the bench as head coach after his suspension ended. In fact, since he was already slated to take over as general manager of the Canucks after the season ended, it was only natural for Neale to fully step back and appoint Neilson as the team’s permanent head coach.

“When I coached against him, I didn’t think he was this good,” marveled Neale to the Sun’s Dennis Feser during the Canucks’ second-round series against the Los Angeles Kings.

And that's how a captain who wasn't supposed to be the captain and a head coach who wasn't supposed to be the head coach led the Canucks to the first Stanley Cup Final in Canucks' history.

Neilson left a lasting legacy with the Canucks despite only coaching them for one-and-a-half seasons. Along the way to the Cup Final, Neilson inaugurated towel power when he held up a white towel on the end of a stick as a mock surrender to the officials during their series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Fans embraced the rebellious gesture and greeted the Canucks’ return to Vancouver with towels twirling over their heads. Towel power continued throughout the rest of the 1982 playoffs and continues to this day.

At least, it will continue when Quinn Hughes becomes the next captain to take the Canucks into the playoffs.