I still remember the day that I became a Canuck.
I mean I remember it exactly: January 2, 2006. Don’t even think about asking me if I looked it up. Seriously, get out of here with that question. I’ll always know this date by heart.
It was a Monday afternoon, and the team was in St. Louis. I dropped off my stuff at the hotel, and caught a bus to the rink. I got off the bus. Walked into the Savvis Center (trying to look like a Cool NHL Guy, you know, but probably doing a bad job). Made my way to the visitors’ locker room. Pushed on those big, official, swinging doors….
And I just remember thinking: Is this real life? Is this really happening?
I entered the locker room … and it was like I must have been hallucinating. Like someone was playing a trick on me, and had created a version of “being on the Vancouver Canucks” that matched up exactly with my fantasy of what it would be like. Like, there was Trevor Linden, putting his gear on. There were the Sedin twins, putting on a clinic in the pregame soccer warmup. There was Markus Naslund, there was Todd Bertuzzi, there was Brendan Morrison — the West Coast Express — looking up at me, giving me a nod. There was an actual NHL team, in the locker room of an actual NHL arena, getting ready for an actual NHL game. It was like, Are you kidding me?
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Like, what is it called, you know — an out-of-body experience? Yeah, I was having one of those: Just standing there, off to the side … watching myself become an NHL player for the first time.
The game that night, given where my head was at, probably went about how you’d expect. I think we lost 4–1 (and it wasn’t even that close). But then late in the third period — when the game had already been out of hand for a while — something happened that I’ll never forget.
There was a scrum by our net, and I caught a little shove from Dennis Wideman.
And for a second there … I froze.
I think that shove from Dennis just kind of, I don’t know, maybe knocked the jitters out of me. And it got me thinking. Suddenly, in this split second, all of these thoughts were running through my head. Like: Alex — they’re going to send you right back down. You’re skating around doing nothing … the team is losing … and now you’re getting pushed around? You’re going to be Alex Burrows, the guy who spends the rest of his life telling people about the ONE game he played in the NHL. Way to go, dude.
It was like I saw my entire career, my entire NHL life, flash before my eyes.
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images
And so I just thought, you know, I need to show these guys that I can help them win. That I’m not some starstruck kid. That I have a passion for this game, and that I’m going to do whatever it takes to stick around.
I gave Wideman a hard shove back — and within a couple of seconds, the gloves were off, punches were flying. Now, don’t get me wrong: I got my ass kicked. But honestly, that wasn’t the point. (Do you ever notice how it’s always the guy who got his ass kicked who says, “That wasn’t the point”?)
But in all seriousness: The point, to me, wasn’t whether I won or lost the fight. It was that I showed the guys I wasn’t just some kid, going through the motions, happy to be there. I showed them that I wasn’t just a guy in a Canucks jersey.
I showed them that I was a Canuck — and that I would do everything I could to remain one.
People mention that I went undrafted, sometimes, as shorthand for my underdog path to the NHL. But the truth is, a lot of guys go undrafted. That’s not even the full picture.
Here’s the full picture: When I got my shot with the Canucks in 2006 … I was still only a few years removed from calling my mom, crying — because I had just been traded to a team (in the hockey hotbed of Baton Rouge) that was literally going out of business. I was still only a couple of years removed from thinking seriously about returning to school — and just calling it quits altogether. And I was still only a single year removed from bouncing around between the AHL and ECHL — I even have my own “I had a plane ticket booked to head back down a level, before the coach liked what he saw and told me to stick around a few more days” story to prove it.
So, you have to understand: When I got called up to Vancouver, I wasn’t just undrafted. I was un-everything.
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images
And I think that’s what made the difference for me — and is how I managed to turn a few games in the ECHL into a full season with the AHL … and then a half season with the AHL into a call-up to the Canucks. I made sure my preparation was strong. I made sure my diet was sound. I made sure my workouts were dedicated and intense. But maybe most of all: I knew how far I had come to get to Vancouver, and how much I’d had to grind just to get the chance to put on that Canucks sweater. And once I got to put it on … man … I wasn’t about to take it off.
And for 12 whole years, I’m proud to say, I didn’t.
I arrived at the perfect time, too.
I felt like I had something to prove — and so did the Canucks. We were building a really strong contender, on the foundation of two all-time guys: Henrik and Daniel. The twins took their play from great to elite … and our style was instantly born. Add Lu to the mix, in goal, and two brilliant coaches in Alain and Rick — and just like that, you had a serious playoff threat.
Pretty soon, the Canucks became synonymous with winning.
Or at least, that is, until 2009: When, as much as this pains me, to admit it … the Canucks became synonymous with something else. For a while there — two years, to be exact — “Canuck” became a word that had a really, really terrible definition.
It meant, “guy who loses to the Blackhawks.”
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Listen: We had good teams in those ’09 and ’10 seasons. Take a look — those were some pretty stacked rosters. But every year, once the playoffs rolled around, it was the same old story. All of that talent, all of that optimism … and then a tough loss to the Blackhawks. It was brutal. And we hated it so much. Actually, sorry, hang on, let me rephrase: We hated them so much. I mean, they had our number, for sure, so give them their due. But man. We hated them.
And so, when that 2011 season finished up, and we led the league in points (by a lot) … and we drew the Blackhawks as our 1-vs.-8 matchup (are you kidding me) … and they came back from a 3–0 series deficit to force a Game 7 (oh God) … you know, I think a lot of teams would have been a little shook by that, and almost felt like they were cursed or something.
But not us.
I remember it so vividly: Ryan Kesler and I, sitting in his car, driving to the rink for that Game 7 against Chicago. There were no nerves, no tense silences. There was no talk of choking. There was just this, like … unexplainable conviction about it. Somehow we just knew. Man, we were going to win that game. We knew it.
And we spent the entire car ride reminding each other of it:
“Nope, not tonight.”
“We’re not going goodnight tonight.”
“We’re not doing it.”
“We’re not losing tonight.”
“Oh, yeah, I know.”
And it was just like that, back and forth, the entire ride to Rogers Arena. It had to be. Our team knew the stakes: If we lost that game — if we lost that series, to our archenemy, after being up 3–0, after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, after having lost to them the previous two years — then it wouldn’t just be losing the game. We knew that if we lost, there was a really good chance that they were going to blow up the whole team.
I mean, the whole team: I think the twins would’ve been gone. Kesler, Bieksa, Luongo would’ve all been gone. AV and the rest of the coaching staff would’ve been gone. And for sure I would’ve been gone. This era of Canucks hockey, and everything that we had built together, would’ve just been … gone. So we had to win. It was just that simple.
O.K., it wasn’t just that simple.
But it was just that sweet.
I’ve been thinking a lot, in the past two weeks since the trade, about why I’ll miss Vancouver so much. And one thing I keep coming back to is those 24 hours in 2011. The night of Game 7 against Chicago … and then the morning after that. For the game, yes: Scoring the goal, in overtime, to win that series, will probably go down as the most famous play of my career.
But it isn’t just the game. Actually, when it comes to this particular memory, the game wasn’t even the best part. It wasn’t even close.
That next day — literally that very next day — my daughter Victoria was born.
Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images
Victoria is five now — and we’re actually kind of leaving similar situations behind: Me, having ascended to a role as one of the veteran leaders in the Canucks’ locker room; and Victoria, having ascended to a role as one of the veteran leaders in the Canucks Family Room.
No, seriously, the Family Room. Ask Victoria about Vancouver … and I’m pretty sure the thing that she loves most of all is the Family Room at Rogers Arena. See, they split up the room into two sides. On one side there are leather couches and a TV for all the girlfriends of the young guys on the team. And on the other side … well, it’s a madhouse.
There are toys, playhouses, coloring books, pretty much anything you can think of. And Victoria would have a ball in there with all of the other kids: Her sister, Lexie (one year younger at four), and her brother, Jacob (just a rookie at 16 months), of course. But also Hamhuis, Bieksa, the Sedins, Kesler — all of their children. It was a whole crew.
It’s actually kind of funny, and sad: As the Canucks have dealt off most of their veterans … well, for the most part, those are the players with kids. Which has meant that, slowly but surely, Victoria has seen a lot of her friends get moved in recent years. The worst was a few years ago, having to explain to her why Kesler’s kids, who she’d been friends with since they were babies, weren’t around anymore. That one was a huge deal, I remember. And it hasn’t gotten any easier. Now, it’s our family who has to deal with a move.
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images
When we told Victoria that Daddy had been traded to Ottawa, I’m not sure if she fully understood.
We were like, “Honey, you have to cheer for the red and black team now.”
And she was like, “But, no. We cheer for the blue team.”
“Well, it’s red and black now, honey.”
“Do they have an orca?” (She’s learned to love the Canucks mascot — but only from afar. When he gets too close, she kind of freaks out. But she loves him as long as he’s on the other side of the arena.)
“No, I’m sorry, honey, they don’t have an orca. But they have … Spartacat!”
“He’s a funny looking cat.”
I think we’ll be fine.
A lot of things went through my mind as I boarded my flight out of Vancouver.
I thought about the long and winding road of my early 20s, in and out of the hockey wilderness. I thought about how hard I fought to wear — to earn — that number 14 Canucks jersey. I thought about Dennis Wideman’s fists … and Ryan Kesler’s car … and finally, finally beating the Blackhawks. I thought about lunches in Yaletown (where Lu, Kevin and I would go), and dinners at PHAT. I thought about those loyal Canucks fans, who stuck with us through our ups and downs. I thought about my legacy as one of the greatest pranksters — sorry, prank artists — in Canucks history: Putting BBQ sauce in the chocolate sauce bottle at the dessert bar … installing padlocks on rookies’ suitcases during long East Coast road trips … stealing a rookie’s phone and switching his best bud’s number to the number of our team president, Trevor Linden. The list goes on and on.
And on a more serious note, I thought about how much the organization helped me to mature over the years. I thought about how proud I had been to take on a leadership role in the organization, when I was entrusted to spearhead the team’s mental-health-awareness initiatives after Bieksa was traded.
I also thought about our medical staff, from Mike Burnstein to Rick Celebrini, who never got the credit they deserve, but were there for me no matter what. I thought about our equipment guy, Pat O’Neill, and his staff, who — whether I needed new sticks, or sharpened skates, or really anything — always had a smile for me, and never said no to me once.
And of course … I thought about all the people who had put their faith in me. I thought about Dave Nonis, and Mike Gillis, and Jim Benning, and Laurence Gilman, and Lorne Henning, and the whole Aquilini Family — who had taken a chance on a kid who was supposedly too old for a prospect, and too small and unskilled for a prospect, and (if they had believed what I had heard all my life) just flat-out not good enough for a prospect. I thought about how fast — how truly fast — life goes. I thought about everywhere I’d been.
And I thought about where I was going.
Andre Ringuette/NHLI/Getty Images)
In the end, hockey is a business, and if I had to go anywhere, I’m thrilled that it ended up being Ottawa. I had a full no-trade clause in my contract, and Senators fans can rest assured: I would have used it if I didn’t feel great about the situation here. And the same thing goes for signing a contract extension. I wouldn’t have even considered one if I didn’t feel totally confident about the fact that Ottawa was somewhere I’d want to be, going forward. I’m coming to Ottawa with the highest expectations — both for this team, and for myself. I’m coming to help win a Stanley Cup.
But I will still, in my own way, always have my heart in Vancouver. I’m leaving with too many memories to count, and an endless debt of gratitude, and the knowledge that I’ve found a city I can consider a hometown for life.
And though it’s bittersweet, for sure — I’m leaving with the sincere hope that this trade will be able to help the Canucks build their future.
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images)
Anyway, Vancouver, that’s all for me.
Thanks again for turning a lucky break into a lucky life.
As someone who came from nothing and then played 12 years for this franchise, I still kind of can’t believe it happened. But I’m so glad it did. Please don’t forget about me — and please, if you get a chance, make sure to pass along some words of mine to next year’s rookies. Just give them the following message: Wear that sweater with pride. And don’t let anybody take it away from you.
It means you’re a Canuck.