Linden combined his considerable on-ice skill with an award-winning commitment to the community. He may have came up short in his efforts to lead the Canucks to the Stanley Cup — he scored their only goals in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the 1994 Final — but when he retired last spring after 19 NHL seasons, he left as a winner in the eyes of Vancouver fans.
Those contributions on and off the ice were remembered when the Canucks retired his No. 16 prior to their 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Earlier in the day, the team surprised Linden by renaming the main entrance and reception area for guests entering GM Place Gate 16 in honor of his number.
Linden wiped tears from his eyes as the retirement ceremony — attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, his family and a number of former teammates and coaches — was capped when the banner with his number was raised to the building's rafters, joining former teammate Stan Smyl's No. 12.
"To share this honor is a great thrill," Smyl told the sellout crowd before the banner-raising. "Your leadership inspired your teammates to play not only at a high level for themselves, but for each other."
Canucks defenseman Mattias Ohlund, a teammate and roommate for seven years with Vancouver who represented the current team, cited Linden for setting "a perfect example on and off the ice" and praised him for being "a friend and mentor."
After several other tributes, Linden was introduced to a rolling, roaring ovation. He noted at the start of his speech that the last time he had been on the floor of GM Place, in his last NHL game in April against Calgary, "I was being chased around by 200-pound defensemen. Now all I have to do is deliver this speech in a suit — and I can tell you, this seems way harder."
He thanked former teammates, management and coaches, especially Pat Quinn — "not did you teach me about the game, you taught me how to be a professional. Your guidance allowed me to reach my full potential." — as well as the team's current and previous owners and, especially, the fans.
"To the fans of Vancouver and British Columbia, it's hard to express my gratitude to you," he said. "Thank you for letting me into your lives. Thanks for being incredible, passionate hockey fans."
Linden played 1,382 NHL games with the Canucks, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. He had 375 goals and 492 assists for 867 points in his career and was 318-415-733 in a team-record 1,140 games with Vancouver. He was traded by the Canucks to the Islanders in February 1998 and returned to Vancouver in a deal with Washington in November 2001.
He noted that he wasn't sure what it would be like to return to the team that had traded him three years earlier.
"When I left Vancouver in February '98, it was a very sad day for me," he said. "When I received the call in November of '01, telling me I was coming home, I didn't know what to think. My 10 years here had been so special; I was concerned it wouldn't be the same.
"It wasn't the same. It was much better."
In a television interview after the ceremony, Linden was still emotional at having his number retired.
"I don’t think there's a bigger honor a player can receive than to be recognized this way," he said. "I do miss the game, the challenge of playing the game. I certainly miss the guys — it’s a great group of guys in that room. But that's part of life in the NHL. It ends for everyone."
Earlier in the day, Linden was surprised to have his number hoisted onto the building. The ceremony was held outside, in heavy-falling snow, and attended by his wife Cristina, father Lane, mother Edna and Commissioner Bettman.
"It's an incredible honor," he said. "I'm totally caught off-guard. It's very special for sure. To have a place at GM Place in perpetuity is incredible. I'm somewhat shocked and overwhelmed and a bit speechless for sure."
Bettman praised Linden not only as a player, but as an ambassador for hockey.
"There could be no finer representative not only of the NHL, but of professional athletes anywhere," Bettman said.
Linden was head of the National Hockey League Players' Association during the labor dispute which resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
Bettman said the two "worked together through some difficult times" and said Linden "demonstrated extraordinary leadership and extraordinary courage."
In addition to his on-ice performance, Linden became known locally for his charity work, something he said team ownership encouraged.
The NHL has recognized his off-ice contributions. In 1997, the League gave him the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made noteworthy humanitarian contributions to his community.
Earlier this year, he received the Foundation Player Award, given each year to a player who makes a significant contribution to his community.
In addition to leading the Canucks to the 1994 Final, he led the Medicine Hat Tigers to back-to-back Memorial Cup titles and was a member of Canada's Olympic team at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
For years, hockey was the biggest part of Linden's life. Since retiring, he's spent time mountain biking, skiing and enjoying life with his family.
He's had "some conversations with different people" about returning to the game in some capacity, but is in no hurry to make a commitment.
"I am trying to figure out what works best for me," he said during the afternoon ceremony at GM Place. "I've promised myself I would take a year or two and try and figure out what area is best for me.
"I love the game, but I want to make sure that's the place I want to be. I'm not sure of that yet."