That all changed during the 1974-75 season. The Canucks, now part of the five team Smythe Division alongside the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Black Hawks, Minnesota North Stars and Kansas City Scouts, went 38-32-10 setting new franchise records for goals for and fewest goals allowed, on their way to a division championship.
For the first time ever, the Vancouver Canucks had earned a spot in the NHL playoffs.
This was a major feat for the up-and-coming Canucks, one fondly remembered by forwards Garry Monahan, Gerry O'Flaherty and goaltender Gary Smith. They shared their memories of that season and the team's first trip to the playoffs.
(Canucks forward from 72-78, 432 games played)
O'Flaherty - We had a real cast of characters that season. Andre Boudrias played with Don Lever and Dennis Ververgaert and they were very good throughout the whole year, they led us offensively and were good on the power play. I played a lot of that year with Garry Monahan and sometimes with Gerry Meehan, but he was traded halfway through the year to Atlanta for Bob Murray. Monahan and I killed a lot of the penalties and had a fun year. Then we had Chris Oddleifson's line, he played with Bordeleau and John Gould and that was a solid line, then Bobby Lalonde was a centre on the fourth line with Gregg Boddy and Leon Rochefort. We had good forwards and a lot of depth that year. We were also strong on defence; Bob Dailey had a great year and he was a younger player who led our defence, he and Dennis Kearns played a lot of the year together and they were very good. Tracy Pratt played with Mike Robitaille, they were solid defenders, and we had a mixture of third set guys throughout the season. It was a team that just gelled together with a lot of youth and a lot of hard work. But make no mistake about it: we won because of Gary Smith.
(Canucks forward from 74-78, 287 games played)
Monahan - I was playing in Toronto and then was traded to Vancouver and when I arrived the guys were pretty negative. The feeling was that we didn't have a chance at making the playoffs and 'too bad you had to come to Vancouver.' I joined the team on the road, they had played three or four games already, and I don't remember the exact details of the whole trip, but I know we went into New York and beat them 1-0 and I scored the winning goal. We also beat Toronto and played well against Minnesota, so we came out of that road trip I think in first place! I don't know exactly when that shift happened, but we started to believe in ourselves and continued playing well, but let's put the praise in the right spot: it was 99 per cent Gary Smith. He was so good. He was a big guy, had some experience and we had a good defensive team in front of him, but he stood on his head and played 72 games!
Gary "Suitcase" Smith
(Canucks goaltender from 73-76, 189 games played)
Smith - We had a good team. We had some 20-goal scorers and good bunch of guys and we got along great. I played a lot, 72 games or something like that, but we had a real good team. It was great, I really enjoyed playing for Vancouver. Earlier in the 70s I was with Chicago and was traded for Dale Tallon - Jerry Korab and I went to the Canucks. I love Vancouver and it was a fairly new team to the city still, we got there two or three years after they got the team. Hockey was really big, we were sold out all the time and it was a great time. The fans loved my nickname Suitcase; I got it from Red Burnett a writer with the Toronto Star, because earlier in my career I had my suitcase packed all the time and was between Toronto and Rochester and Tulsa - all over the place. The nickname stuck. I didn't mind it. But the players called me Axe because I'd chop guys in my crease and stuff like that.
O'Flaherty - He drove the bus for us every night and he kept us in every game. We became a hardworking team, we had four good lines and our defence was strong, but Gary was the glue. He was outstanding on the ice, and off the ice, he had personality galore.
Monahan - He was a fun-loving guy, loved a good time and was great to be around. He was a lot of fun. Everybody was overshadowed by Smitty - he had the big afro haircut, he had a lynx fur coat right down to the floor, he was a tall guy and it still went right down to the floor, so he was quite the scene. Funny story: I mentioned we went into New York early on and beat them 1-0, well Smitty liked to have the odd cocktail after a game, as we all did back then, but he maybe had one more cocktail then the rest of us, so we're on the bus the next morning and we're heading to the airport and Jim Robson was reading the paper and said "here's a quote from [Rangers forward] Pete Stemkowski: he said they could have shot the puck at Smitty until 3 in the morning last night and never put a pea past him!" Smitty pipes up and says "If they could have seen me at 3 in the morning, he wouldn't have been saying that!"
Smith - I liked to have a good time and we were winning a lot, so it was fun! And I remember the fan support was incredible. I went to the all-star game that year in Montreal, and before I left, somebody organized a banner that went all the way around the whole Pacific Coliseum that said Good Luck at the All-star Game Gary Smith. I though holy cow, this city has really gone nuts about us.
Monahan - That was my first year in Vancouver, so I didn't know about what it was like before, but the city embraced us and it was a good feeling for sure. We kept winning and Phil Maloney was doing a great job coaching us, he let the guys play and was rolling four lines, which kept everyone happy, and it was a good feeling in the locker room. We carried that to a division championship and Vancouver's first playoff series!
Smith - We finished our schedule and there were a couple more games to go in the season to determine who we'd play in the playoff because it was a seeded system and teams were ranked based on regular season points. We knew we were either going to play against Philadelphia or Montreal in the playoffs, so we flew back to Toronto and waited a day to see who we were going to play. Don Lever was my roommate and I remember asking him who he wants to play Philadelphia or Montreal. He said, "Are you kidding me? I want to play Montreal!" Because then he wouldn't get the sh** kicked out of him like we would if we were going to Philadelphia with all those goons that they had. I wanted to play against Philadelphia, because I wasn't going to get beat up, and I wasn't going to get 10 goals scored on me like I was against Montreal!
Monahan - It was a toss up. We were scared skinny when we'd go into Philadelphia. This one time the bus pulled right into the bottom of the Spectrum and the bus had post-ignition syndrome where it wouldn't shut off. So we said holy smokes, even the bus is scared sh**less! The bus was shaking. It was tough hockey. There was a lot of fighting, we had donnybrooks every game against them, we even had bench clearing brawls.
O'Flaherty - We would have happily played either team, there was no degree of difference, they were both elite hockey teams in that era and either team would have been very difficult. At that point we were just happy to make the playoffs and even happier to finish in first and get a bye in the first round.
Monahan - It was one of the few times they had a first round bye in the NHL. So we had a bye in the first round and some people said that because we were playing the fabulous Montreal Canadiens in the second round, that we had a bye in the first round and a bye bye in the second round!
Smith - I had a bad groin, all year I had a bad groin. It would never heal because I was playing all the time. So the last three games of the season Ken Lockett played and he played great. Two of them were shutouts and he only let in a goal or two in the other. So they started him in the first game of the playoffs against Montreal, which was maybe the best team that I've ever seen in hockey. There's at least 10 of them in the hall of fame. And we gave them a hell of a series, but it didn't start out well.
Monahan - It was a daunting task facing Montreal. Smitty had gotten hurt and didn't play the last few games of the regular season and Spider Kenny Lockett had played the last few games of the year and played very, very well, he was outstanding. So come the first game of the playoffs, Maloney decides to go with the hot hand and he puts Spider Lockett in goal at the Montreal Forum. I remember taking a taxi to the Forum with Spider and he was nervous. We were all nervous, but he was extra nervous, and he didn't play all that well. I think we lost 6-2 that first game.
Smith - They played me in Game 2 and we won in Montreal, it was unbelievable, especially in those days.
Monahan - We came back with Smitty in the second game and we won, I think 2-1! In Montreal! That's a big win, that's a tough place to play and I scored the winning goal as luck would have it. So there's a little trivia fact for you: the first Canucks game-winning playoff goal was scored by me! I think I shot it into a maze of players and it hit about three legs and an ass before it went in!
O'Flaherty - That could have been a highlight of the whole season beating Montreal in Montreal in the playoffs. So it was a 1-1 series and we came back to Vancouver to quite a celebration, the fans in Vancouver were quite excited we had not only made the playoffs for the first time, but had evened the series with Montreal.
Monahan - We played well over the next three games, unfortunately it wasn't enough to beat Montreal and we lost the series. We lost the next two games at home and I thought we played well, we had them on the run for a while, we just couldn't put the puck in the net. Then in the fifth game in Montreal, we took them to overtime and here's a story for you: I was a defensive forward, so one of my jobs was to cover Guy Lafleur and I did not a bad job of doing that I thought, but in the overtime, Lafleur was in the opposite corner, (he's a right winger and I'm a left winger) but he was in the other corner and I'm not chasing him over there, I'm more or less standing in front of the net waiting for him to come there. Anyways, he throws the puck out in front of the net and Dennis Kearns tried to shove it back into the corner and it rolled and hopped on him and if it didn't go off his stick and right over Smitty's shoulder for the winning goal. Kearns felt bad, but the guys jokingly said that the goal was my fault because my guy scored it - "Monahan can't check," they said.
Smith - We played them tough and just couldn't get it done. I let in some bad goals. We took the series five games and lost in overtime at the Forum to end the series. That's basically what I remember about that.
Monahan - It was a sour finish, but having played in Montreal and Toronto, there was so much pressure there. I'm from Toronto and the media coverage is intense, so coming to Vancouver was a breath of fresh air. There was no media attention and scrutiny and high expectations. It was great for me and that season was very special. Smitty was the major reason for that and Jim Robson, who is a real astute guy, believed that Smitty should have won the Hart Trophy that year instead of Bobby Clarke, who won it. But in those days the media in the east couldn't see past the Rocky Mountains. I agree. With a team like we had, without a lot of talent or experience, for him to play that well over 72 games, with all the travel we did, it was unbelievable. He'd play back-to-backs all the time and stand on his head.
O'Flaherty - He was bringing it every night and he was outstanding every night. I believe he should have won the Hart trophy that year, he was that good. Gary was great and other than him, we had a group of hardworking guys. I was a little bit disappointment in the end that season, but reflecting on it, that was a big season for us. It was a successful season for both the franchise and all the players on that team.
Smith - I wasn't actually a friend of Bobby Clarke. As far as when we played each other, we hated each other basically, I was trying to chop him all the time and he was trying to hit me with his stick over my head or do whatever he could to disturb me. But he was a pretty good stick man so for him to say something like that was nice, I don't know why he said it, I guess that's what he thought. I didn't deserve to win the Hart. It wasn't me, it was the team. We had a great team. I had a great time in Vancouver, I loved living there, I moved back for a while after I finished, and I still follow the Canucks now on NHL Centre Ice.
*Special thanks to Scott McArthur, @VintageCanucks, for the photo assistance. Give him a follow!