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The wingman

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Everything came together for the Vancouver Canucks in the spring of 1982 and the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance was the result.

The Kid Line, an all-rookie threesome made up of Curt Fraser, Stan Smyl and Thomas Gradin, was the glue that held the team together for the run to the championship, but prior to joining the Canucks, two-thirds of that line mixed like oil and water.

The scrappy Canucks playing for Lord Stanley’s Mug was improbable, Fraser and Smyl becoming teammates, allies and friends was next to impossible.

Fraser and Smyl were cut from the same cloth, making run-ins during their Western Canada Hockey League days appointment viewing. Fraser, a 6-foot, 200-pound Ohio native raised in BC, was leader of the Victoria Cougars, while Smyl, an Alberta product measuring 5-foot-10 and weighing in at 190-pounds, was captain of the New Westminster Bruins.

For four seasons Fraser’s Cougars tried to knock off the big bad Bruins and without much success as New Westminster won four consecutive league championships from 1974-1978.

This lopsided winning did nothing but further sour the relationship between bitter rivals Fraser and Smyl, hockey's equivalent to Top Gun’s LT Pete "Maverick" Mitchell and LT Tom "Iceman" Kazansky.

“There were a lot of guys on his team that I didn’t like,” explained Fraser, “Stan I had respect for, he was a tough player, but he was good.

“We had a lot of run-ins, but both teams had big strong players and it was a real battle every game. Stan was not only a rugged, physical player, he was a very good player and the leader of their group. I had to keep my eye on him all the time.”

Smyl was also tasked with keeping Fraser in check and while challenging for both, they naturally developed an appreciation for one another.

By the time their junior days were behind them, the pair was drafted to the Canucks, Fraser 22nd overall in the 2nd round, Smyl a 3rd round selection, 40th overall.

That sealed the deal. Enemies no more, Fraser and Smyl began bickering over who would play wingman to the other. Ironically, they both ended up wingmen for Gradin to form the beginning of a tight-knit Canucks team that would peak in the 1982 Playoffs.

Chemistry was a major part of that ’82 squad and the team followed the leadership of the Kid Line, one willing to lay it all on the line right from the moment they stepped on the ice together.

“Thomas, Stan and I were thrown together early in the camp and we wanted to make the team and we were willing to do whatever it took. The first scrimmage we had in training camp for the Canucks that year, the fur was flying right away. We had 11 rookies come into the team that year and we wanted to make sure we gave ourselves the best chance to make it. One way to do it was to play tough and that’s how Stan and I started.

“Thomas, on the other hand, was highly, highly skilled; Stan and I were the raw guys on the outside, I think they actually called us ‘Blacksmiths’ one time. Something just clicked, every coach searches for three guys, a line, that kind of clicks and has chemistry and works together well and that just seemed to happen right away and that’s how it worked.”

That’s also the story of how most championship teams come together; a team gets hot at the right time and before long the wins are piling up.

The highlight of Fraser’s time in Vancouver, four-and-a-half seasons from 1978 to 1983, was, like everyone else on the team that era, the ’82 Cup march. Unlike others, Fraser remembers using his fists to make the biggest contribution as he and Tiger Williams combined for 214 of the team’s 673 penalty minutes that post-season, good for 30 per cent.

Fraser’s role as a goal-scorer didn’t change that spring, instead he was tasked with balancing offensive prowess with toughness like never before.

“The first series against Calgary, of my goodness, they were a huge team and the only way we were going to level the playing field was to stand up to them; I don’t know how many scraps there were in that series, quite a few.”

(A few memorable tilts between Fraser and Willi Plett come to mind with YouTube keeping those scraps alive today)

“Once we got by Calgary, then things fell into place for us. LA knocked off Edmonton, we played LA, Chicago knocked off Minnesota, we played Chicago. Then we ran into the Islanders and it was tough, but if you remember the first game of that series, overtime, it was close.

“In the end it was a fantastic experience for all of us guys just to have a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals and just get a feeling of what it was all about.”

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