For years, fans of the Vancouver Canucks rued what could have been.
Sitting in their picturesque, modern city in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, they turned their eyes longingly across the continent to the hardscrabble, ancient city of Boston, hard against the Atlantic Ocean, and dreamed those sweet dreams of what could have been.
There, in an old, rickety Boston Garden, Cam Neely was redefining the role of a power forward during a decade of excellence with the more established Bruins. Despite distances of time and geography, every Neely success -- and there were so many -- sent tremors of pain and regret back to Vancouver.
Neely, a British Columbia boy by birth, you see, was once a Canuck. Drafted ninth overall in 1983 by Vancouver, the 6-foot-1 Neely was everything the team's fans could want in a player. A big, mean forward that played the game in the straight-ahead way favored by fans north of the border.
After some early struggles, Neely was just blossoming into the player fans envisioned when management sent him to Boston for established scorer Barry Pederson before the 1986-87 season. In 10 years with the Bruins, Neely scored 344 goals in 525 games with the Bruins before a chronic knee condition cut his career short.
For years, that trade was considered the worst in Vancouver's history -- an open wound tormenting the fan base's psyche each time it was referenced. Mention of the deal still hurts, of that there is no doubt. But, the arrival of Todd Bertuzzi during the 1997-98 season has taken away some of that sting.
For the Canucks, Bertuzzi has developed into Vancouver's own version of Neely. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he is the big, mean, straight-ahead forward the Canucks' loyal fan following has craved since Neely's departure.
"He's got it all," says Vancouver linemate Markus Naslund. "He's physical along the walls, he's strong on the puck and he's got a good shot."
"What makes him different is the high level of skill," says teammate Trevor Linden. "He's just so big, with so much skill. I can't think of another forward like him."
And, just like Neely, Bertuzzi came from somewhere else. Drafted by the Islanders in the first round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, Bertuzzi was considered a bust after scoring 35 goals in his first 292 games with the Islanders.
As a result, he was sent packing by Isles' GM Mike Milbury, who packaged Bertuzzi, young defenseman Bryan McCabe and a third-round pick -- which turned out to be current Vancouver agitator Jarkko Ruutu -- for Trevor Linden.
Bertuzzi has blossomed into the game's marquee power forward while Linden served little more than a year on the Island before being traded to Montreal. Now, Linden is back with Vancouver after a trade from Washington last year.
For Islander fans, the Bertuzzi trade is just as painful as the Neely trade is to the Vancouver faithful.
"I just ran out of time in Long Island and it was a blessing to go to Vancouver," says Bertuzzi, who has increased his goal output in each of his last three seasons. "They gave me an opportunity to blossom there and I am grateful for that chance. It was a gradual climb. Each year I got a little better and I still am trying to get better each year."
This season has been Bertuzzi's best by far. After finishing the 1997-98 with Vancouver, Bertuzzi missed almost all of the 1998-99 season after a bad leg injury suffered in a game against Washington on Dec. 1, 1998. The next two seasons saw Bertuzzi post back-to-back 25-goal seasons.
"It's going to be a grind to finish it off, but that is what will make this team mature." - Todd Bertuzzi
In 2001-02, Bertuzzi put up a career-high 36 goals and 85 points as he combined with Naslund and Brendan Morrison to form one of the League's deadliest lines. This season, Bertuzzi is in the running -- along with Naslund and Ottawa's Marian Hossa -- for the Maurice Richard Trophy as the League's top goal scorer. He has an outside chance to top 50 goals, something Neely accomplished three times.
"I don't really think about individual goals, it's more team goals," says Bertuzzi. "I think we're in a situation here in Vancouver where we can accomplish a lot of those goals this year and that is what I am focused on."
Those team goals include a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Last spring, Vancouver had top-seed Detroit on the ropes, taking the first two games of the seven-game series in Detroit. A long-range goal by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 3 turned the series around as Detroit won in six games and went on to raise the Stanley Cup.
The sting of that collapse still resides with Bertuzzi and his teammates. But, they prefer to see it as the seasoning they needed to be ready to do more damage this time around. Vancouver has led the Northwest Division for most of the season and is in the running for the Western Conference's top seed, as well as the Presidents' Trophy.
Expectations are high this time around that the very deep -- and very talented -- Canucks can make a run at Stanley Cup glory.
"I think we are one of the teams that everyone is chasing and I think everyone in our room is comfortable in being in that situation," says Bertuzzi. "It's going to be a grind to finish it off, but that is what will make this team mature."
Despite his focus on team goals, Bertuzzi is not so myopic that he cannot see the legacy he is developing for himself with his play since arriving in Vancouver. He is a student of the game. He knows the litany of big names that have admirably filled the power forward role throughout the sport's long history.
"I've always respected the big guys that have played this game," Bertuzzi said. "They go out there and demand respect and they make the space they need to do their job. It's not an easy thing to do, so I've always looked up to that kind of player."
Today, Bertuzzi is the kind of player he always looked up.
Today, Canucks fans no longer need to wonder what could have been. Instead off longingly looking across the continent for the ghost of Neely, they peer down on the GM Place ice and watch No. 44 in his broad white sweater barrel his way to the front of the net and pot another goal.
Today, Bertuzzi is Vancouver's Neely -- a decade late, but no less needed.