Remembering ‘Towel Power’ 40 years later

Illustration by Udeshi Seneviratne

The Canucks had gotten hot at the right time. They were a team backed by destiny.

The Vancouver Canucks’ run to cup final in 1982 ignited euphoria in the city
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist

This year marks 40 years since the Vancouver Canucks made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The city cheered unanimously following Vancouver’s playoff drive that took them to the finals, where they would be swept in four games by the mighty New York Islanders.

Nevertheless, it was a cup run to remember as there was euphoria and good spirit in Vancouver. It was unlike what transpired after the Canucks appeared in later cup finals in 1994 and 2011. Vancouver lost both finals, which also resulted in two ugly riots in downtown Vancouver that negatively affected the city’s reputation.

In 1982, the Canucks had been in the NHL for 12 years. Frank Griffiths Sr. owned the team from 1974 till his death in 1994. According to Griffiths Sr.’s biography on the BC Hockey Hall of Fame website, in 1981, Frank appointed his son Arthur Griffiths Jr to work as Assistant to the Chairman of the Vancouver Canucks. In 1988, Griffiths Sr. gave majority control of the club to his son. In the 1981-1982 season, Jake Milford was the general manager. Harry Neale was the head coach and the assistant coaches were Roger Neilson and Ron Smith.

Vancouver finished the 1981-1982 season ranked second in the Smythe Division with 77 points (record of 30-33-17). The Canucks were a team that had skill, character and toughness—along with solid goaltending from “King” Richard Brodeur—who was outstanding during the 1982 playoffs. Vancouver had three players finishing the 1982 season scoring 30 or more goals: Thomas Gradin (37), Stan Smyl (34) and Ivan Boldirev (33). Another three players had scored 20 or more goals: Curt Fraser (28), Ivan Hlinka (23) and Darcy Rota (20).

In March 1982, United Press International reported Vancouver traded goalie Glen Hanlon to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Tony Currie, Rick Heinz, Jim Nill and a fourth-round pick. The Province, in a December 2019 article, recalled when in March of 1982, head coach, Harry Neale, went into the stands to engage with a fan in Quebec City. Neale was suspended for 10 games by the NHL. Roger Neilson took over coaching duties. The Province also reported a day before the start of the playoffs, Canucks captain, Kevin McCarthy, broke his ankle at practice while in a playful wrestling match with Curt Fraser at Britannia Ice Rink. McCarthy would not return to the lineup during the Canucks’ playoff run. Other injuries included defencemen: Rick Lanz and Jiří Bubla.

Vancouver’s path to the 1982 cup final would be made easier after the highly-favoured Edmonton Oilers were upset in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings (Edmonton finished first in the Smythe Division with 117 points, 48 points ahead of the Kings). The Canucks faced the Calgary Flames in the first round (then a best-of-five series). Vancouver won the series three games to zero; highlighted by Dave “Tiger” Williams’ overtime winner in game two—sending the fans at the Pacific Coliseum into euphoria. Vancouver then faced the Los Angeles Kings in the second round, winning the series four games to one.

The next opponent for Vancouver would be the Chicago Blackhawks in the Clarence Campbell Conference Final. Vancouver would win the series four games to one. Game 5 was played in Chicago at Chicago Stadium on May 6, 1982. The Canucks celebrated with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl after a 6-2 victory to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. The Canucks had gotten hot at the right time. They were a team backed by destiny.

Notably, the Vancouver and Chicago series provided some memorable moments. Canucks forward Jim Nill scored a memorable goal in the second overtime in game one at Chicago Stadium. There was also the birth of “Towel Power,” after Canucks’ coach, Roger Neilson, held a hockey stick in the air with a towel draped as a show of “mock surrender” late in game two (Chicago won 4-1 to even the series). Neilson was not pleased with the officiating of referee Bob Myers. Neilson was ejected from the game. United Press International reported on May 1, 1982, Neilson was fined $1,000 by the NHL for his conduct (Canucks organization was also fined $10,000). As well, there was the memorable fight between Vancouver’s Ron Delorme and Chicago’s Grant Mulvey in game five. Mulvey cross-checked Lars Lindgren in the head after play had been stopped. Delorme immediately went after Mulvey and left him bruised and bloodied.

But the Canucks would not have any time to celebrate their victory over Chicago. Vancouver boarded a plane the next day and flew to New York for game one of the Stanley Cup Final against the defending champions, the New York Islanders—who were well-rested. The Islanders finished the 1981-1982 season ranked first in the Patrick Division with 118 points (record of 54-16-10). New York would have a challenging first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning the series in five games. Then the Islanders defeated the New York Rangers in six games in the second round; followed by a four-game sweep of the Quebec Nordiques in the Wales Conference Finals.

Game one of the cup finals was played on May 8, 1982, at Nassau Coliseum. The Canucks played the Islanders hard, and at times Vancouver’s aggressive play had the defending champions frustrated. The game went into overtime with the score tied 5-5. Then late in the extra period with two seconds left, Vancouver defenceman, Harold Snepsts, attempted to make a pass up the middle to Gerry Minor. Mike Bossy, who had already scored two goals, was circling inside the Canucks’ zone like a shark sensing blood. Bossy intercepted Snepsts’ pass and then released a quick shot off the post to win the game. Afterwards, a frustrated Richard Brodeur punched a CBC camera as he walked back to the dressing room.

After game one, Islanders coach, the late Al Arbour, was not pleased with Vancouver’s physical play and tactics throughout the game—comparing their game to Irish football. “Clutch, grab and tackle. Holding onto sweaters. Dump it out, dump it out. That’s the way they play,” Arbour said as reported by Sports Illustrated. “They try to frustrate you, and they’ll use the same tactics the whole series. The refereeing? I’m kind of annoyed at some of the calls that weren’t made.” Some of the media coverages of the cup final were not showing respect to the Vancouver Canucks. A May 1982 Sports Illustrated article contained the headline, “[The woebegone Canucks, who used to put their fans to sleep, have made it all the way to the finals of the Stanley Cup].”

In game two, it was another high-scoring game, with the Islanders winning by a score of six to four. Then it was onto Vancouver for games three and four at the Pacific Coliseum. Despite the Canucks being down two games to zero, the team received an overwhelming reception after arriving at the airport in Richmond. CBC News reported on the excitement in the city caused by the Canucks’ appearance in the cup finals. “The body is ailing in Vancouver,” said Martin Robin, a college professor, who spoke about how the Canucks helped elevate the spirits and morale in the city. “People are looking for some kind of big escape, and they’re finding it in their hockey team.” Also, fans had camped outside the Pacific Coliseum to purchase tickets for games three and four; Canucks fever was at its apex.

In game three, the Pacific Coliseum was a remarkable sight—as the sold-out crowd cheered the Canucks while waving white towels in unison. Unfortunately, for Vancouver fans, the Islanders spoiled the party. New York played a tight defensive road game, winning by a score of three to zero. In game four, it was another close game. Butch Goring opened the scoring for the Islanders in the first period. Then Stan Smyl tied the game before the end of the period. But the Islanders’ depth, talent and experience would overpower the Canucks. Mike Bossy scored two powerplay goals in the second period (Bossy finished with 17 goals in the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP). The Islanders won by a score of three to one, capturing their third of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Retired Hall of Fame broadcaster, Jim Robson, recalled the Canucks were competitive in all four games against the Islanders. But when the games moved to Vancouver; the Islanders showed their experience. “[Games three and four were very] tight checking, good goaltending [by] Richard Brodeur and Billy Smith…” Robson said in a January 2021 email interview with the Other Press. “I remember Bryan Trottier winning a lot of faceoffs, even though Vancouver had good [centres], Thomas Gradin, Ivan Boldirev, Ivan Hlinka, Gerry Minor, Gary Lupul and Lars Molin. The Canucks had a tough team too, but the Islanders were certainly [the] better team in winning their third straight [cup].”

Shortly after losing to the New York Islanders, the Vancouver Canucks were honoured with a large parade by the city of Vancouver as reported by the Vancouver Sun in May 2012. The parade was held on Burrard Street with Canucks players in open convertibles. Then a rally was held at Sunset Beach that also included a stage with live music.

The Vancouver Mayor of 1982, Mike Harcourt, issued a statement as reported by United Press International on May 18, 1982: “To celebrate the Canucks’ tremendous achievement, I am asking all the citizens of our city to come out and show our team how we feel. Bring your kids, bring your enthusiasm and bring your white towels.”

Meanwhile, the New York Islanders were celebrating their Stanley Cup victory. Islanders coach, Al Arbour, said before the team returned to New York—winning a championship never gets easier. “It’s difficult when everyone expects you to win,” he said. “But this team has proven they can win every kind of game and series. They grinded [sic] to win, skated, came from behind, and won in overtime. That’s the true test of a championship team.”

Veteran CKNW radio host, Jon McComb, was the public address announcer for games three and four of the Stanley Cup Final at the Pacific Coliseum. He remembers the excitement and cacophony of noise inside the building. “When they flew home for games [three and four], the town went nuts,” McComb said in an email interview with the Other Press. “The scene at the Coliseum for [game three] was, for me, awe-inspiring. [Over 16,000 plus fans], in full throat, waving those white towels made the hair on my neck stand up. I announced the starting line-ups and [could] not hear myself over the cheering. Even though the team was destined to go down to the Islanders in [four] straight, the fans made their love and appreciation for the ’81-’82 Canucks obvious and loud.”

CBC reporter, Tom Alderman, in a news report covering the excitement in Vancouver the day before game three—stated the Canucks’ chances of defeating the New York Islanders were unlikely: “Vancouver fans [do not] insist that its heroes be regular winners. Just that they give them a taste of impossible dreams.”

Although the Vancouver Canucks did not win the Stanley Cup in 1982, the fans in the city of Vancouver reacted like they did win the cup. For six weeks in the spring of 1982, the Vancouver Canucks started a euphoric phenomenon that captured the attention and struck a chord in the psyche of hockey fans on the west coast. And perhaps Ben Kuzma, a sportswriter for The Province, said it best in his December 2019 article about the Canucks’ unforgettable run in 1982: “…the Canucks won something else in that wild 1982 run—respect.”

Fun facts during 1982 Canucks and Islanders Stanley Cup Final
Mayor of Vancouver: Mike Harcourt
Premier of BC: Bill Bennett
Prime Minister of Canada: Pierre Trudeau
Number one song in Canada: “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Number one song in the US: “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis