The Esposito Curse

by Eric Davenport

There is something eerie about the Vancouver Canucks, as if, come playoff time, some uncanny, omnipresent sense of unescapable defeat continuously weighs down upon our beloved team. On Saturday night, the Canucks blew a three-goal lead to the Calgary Flames, assuring that, for the forty-fifth consecutive year since the inception of the club, they would once again finish the season without Stanley Cup glory. The drought seems unlikely, given the talent the Canucks have amassed over the years, but upon consideration of Vancouver hockey’s dark past, our playoff failures seem almost inevitable. With undeniable cruelty, professional sports’ next great curse has landed right on our doorstep.
From the start, professional sports have been littered with superstitious tales of accursed teams. Passed down from generation to generation, these myths become engrained in the team’s image, and almost impossible to escape. Take the Chicago Cubs, for instance. Largely regarded as the most unsuccessful team in baseball history, the Cubs were once one of the National League’s top sides, winning back to back World Series’ in 1907 and 1908, and sixteen National League pennants from 1876 to 1945. However, superstition surrounding their drought arose during the 1945 World Series. Tavern owner and Cubs fan Billy Sianis was in attendance at Wrigley Field with his pet goat, which he would take with him wherever he went. Sianis and his goat were famous at the ballpark, and were allowed to parade around the stadium before the game started. However, partway through the game, they were asked to leave, because of complaints about the odor coming from the goat. Enraged, Billy stood up and yelled across the stadium, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more!” From that moment on, the Cubs have never won a National League pennant, and never reached the World Series.
But what, you may ask, have the Canucks done to receive hockey’s eternal damnation? Or is it the fans who have brought the curse upon themselves? ! In 1972, an eight game series was organized between an all-Canadian team made up of NHL players, and the Soviet Red Army, who had dominated international hockey for two decades. It was called the Summit Series, and was billed as the ultimate decider of hockey’s best international side. Since the 1950’s, the Soviets had dominated Olympic hockey, winning four gold medals in five olympic games from 1956 to 1972. Although Olympic hockey was considered the pinnacle of international success, it was widely known that Canada was never able to field their best teams, because the Olympics disallowed professionals from playing. So in 1972, the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union was to be the deciding factor for international supremacy. Expectations for the Canadians were huge, with the majority of the country expecting Team Canada to sweep the Russians eight games to zero. With the first four games in Canada, before the Series moved to Moscow, there was immense pressure on the Canadians’ shoulders.
The first four games however, did not go according to plan. With Canada under the microscope in Montreal for game one, the team lost decisively to the Russians, 7-3. They responded with a 4-1 win in Toronto, and a 4-4 draw in Winnipeg, before the setting shifted to Vancouver for a crucial fourth game. Whoever won game four would be in the driver’s seat for the final four games in Russia. In front of a packed crowd at the Pacific Coliseum, Team Canada disappointed. The Soviet style of play and superior fitness lead the Red Army to a 5-3 win over the fatigued Canadians. There was no denying, however, that Canada had tried their best. They gave the game every ounce of energy they had, but they couldn’t match the well-schooled Russians. Disgusted with the team, the Vancouver fans started booing Canada in the final moments of the game. The insults continued to rain down on the team until long after all the players had left the ice. All but one. Phil Esposito, Canada’s star forward, and co-captain, took to the ice for a post game interview.
Showing his distain and disgust for the Vancouverite crowd, Esposito delivered an historic speech that is remembered by some as the turning point in the series: ! “To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I’m really, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players, the fans … Russians boo their players … Some of the Canadian fans—I’m not saying all of them, some of them booed us, then I’ll come back and I’ll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don’t think they will. I’m really, really … I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps, we know, we’re trying like hell. I mean, we’re doing the best we can, and they got a good team, and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150%, because we certainly are. ‘I mean, the more – everyone of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada. We did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason. They can throw the money, uh, for the pension fund out the window. They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States, and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home, and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”
The Canadians went on to win three of four games in Moscow, to claim the series in a dramatic eighth game. But the attitude exemplified by the Vancouver crowd in 1972 has set an example for the fickle nature of hockey fans in this city. When the Canucks do well, everybody’s on the bandwagon. When they don’t, everybody’s cheering for somebody else, and booing the Canucks in the process. Esposito hit the nail right on the head. He publicly shamed the Vancouver fans, and Vancouver hockey. When considering the continent’s largest hockey markets, Vancouver fans have delivered the most embarrassing and disheartening actions of them all – first booing their own country on home ice, and then rioting in both 1994 and 2011. No other group of fans has rioted even once. We’ve done it twice. It’s safe to say that Vancouver has the worst hockey fans in Canada – whether that’s cause for the curse or an effect of it is hard to say.
Since the inception of the Canucks in 1970, many great players and great teams have graced the city of Vancouver with breathtaking skill. From Pavel Bure, to Trevor Linden, to Mark Messier, to Mats Sundin, to Roberto Luongo, to the Sedin twins, Vancouver has had no shortage of on-ice talent. The 2011 Canucks are arguably the best team of the 21st century (so far), and over the last ten years, few teams have had as much playoff experience as Vancouver. But for some reason, the Canucks have never tasted Lord Stanley’s glory. We’ve made the Finals three times, twice to a game seven. Both times, Canuck fans, wearing Canuck jerseys, exiting from the Canuck’s arena, have set our city on fire. Until we stop with the bandwagoning, booing, and molotov cocktails, Esposito’s comments will remain true. Let’s hope his curse will too, because until our fans can get things straight, we don’t deserve a team who can win a Stanley Cup. Forty-three years ago, in an arena cold with the shadow of defeat, Phil Esposito tried to teach our fans a lesson: to honour our athletes. We still haven’t listened. And until we do, our athletes owe us nothing.