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Towel Power: An Oral History

...it was us against the world and those towels were the symbol of that.

by Derek Jory @NoJoryous / Vancouver Canucks

The lasting image is a towel draped over a hockey stick, being held high in the air by Roger Neilson. During the NHL's Clarence Campbell Conference Finals in 1982, with Vancouver in Chicago playing the Black Hawks in Game 2, Neilson didn't agree with how the game was being refereed. It was one-sided, in Neilson's eyes, with the Canucks were being called for too many penalties. He had seen enough. In mock surrender, he placed a towel on a stick and raised it for all to see, with players joining in on the bench.

Watch: Youtube Video

Just like that, towel power was born.

There's a statue of Neilson, who died in 2003 from cancer at age 69, outside Rogers Arena commemorating his rebellious act and saluting his innovative coaching techniques. But there's much more to the beginnings of towel power. The backstory begins with the Canucks playing the Nordiques at Le Colisee in Quebec on March 20, 1982.

Harry Neale

(Canucks coach from 1978-1985)

Neale (talking to NHL.com Correspondent Evan Weiner) - In Quebec City, they had, at that time, no protection from the benches. It was just carved out of the seats. The people were sitting with you. Tiger Williams, one of our tougher players, got pinned against the boards and a fan ran down two rows, about five seats over from the bench and punched Tiger. So I ran off the bench to get this fan and I have often wondered why I would be defending Tiger Williams, he was one of the toughest guys in hockey. But nevertheless I did. Two or three of my players came with me to help me out.

Stan Smyl

(Canucks forward from 78-91, 896 games played)

Smyl - Quebec Coliseum was loud. They had great teams there and it was an intimidating building to play in. The way the structure of the bench was, fans were just on the other side of it. An incident happened and Harry Neale went into the stands and he got suspended, so did a bunch of players. That's just the way our group was. We had each other's backs; it didn't matter if it was the GM or the coach, we had each other's backs.

Harold Snepsts

(Canucks defenceman from 1974-84, 88-89 & 89-90, 781 games played)

Snepsts - I was on the ice, holding a guy. There was a little skirmish 5-on-5, then all of the sudden people were making noise behind my back, so I turned my guy around and I saw everyone going into the stands. I was shocked. We were all holding on to somebody and nobody knew who wanted to actually fight, then everyone stopped what they were doing to see what was going on and our guys were fighting with fans in the stands!

Ron Delorme

(Canucks forward from 81-85, 210 games played)

Delorme - Let me back up a bit. The second game of this road trip was in Edmonton and there was s skirmish between Tiger and [Dave] Semenko. I got involved and I wasn't in there to fight, but then Semenko hit me KA-BOOM, right in the eye. And my head went RING and I saw lights and I thought hold it, I can't see. Then we went at it pretty damn good he and I. Our next game was in Washington and I had a big black eye. Capitals defenceman Rick Green took a run at Thomas Gradin, well I happened to be on the ice and I challenged Green and he fought me and I hit him to the point that I hurt him. I hit his teeth and his teeth cut the tendons of my fingers, so I can't play anymore. And that was right before this Quebec game, same road trip. So I wasn't playing in Quebec, I was up in the stands. And I watched the whole thing. It was right under me. All I saw was someone was heckling Harry Neale and Harry had had enough of that. I think that's what started it. Neale went up in the stands and Doug Halward came over to the stands and just starting pummeling a guy. It was wild. Tiger was in there too.

Neale - (NHL President John) Ziegler didn't think it was as amusing as many people did and suspended me for eight games. So the last four games of the season Roger Neilson, who was my assistant coach, took over, and then (coached) the first four in the playoffs. Being as smart as I was, because I was going to be the next general manager, I said 'Roger, you continue and coach' and, of course, that was the year we went to the Final.

Snepsts - Things really changed after that brawl. We went on a roll and we won six or seven in a row to end the regular season, if I'm not mistaken. It was an easy transition. Harry was a real motivator and then Roger was fantastic with the Xs and Os and all the small details. Roger took over and we all bought in.

Smyl - It was very comfortable for all the players, we dealt with Roger a lot as assistant coach. Roger used a lot of video with us and it benefited us, it was a lot of hard work taping games and breaking down your power play and penalty kill and trying to get as much video as you could on your opponents. That was Roger, he found ways of doing it.

Delorme - Roger came in and from that point on we just turned into a lunch bucket team, a Cinderella team right from that moment. We won six out of seven and then kept winning as we went into the playoffs. I really remember that run we had late in the season and into the playoffs and the kind of team we had, everyone was out there for each other.

Darcy Rota

(Canucks forward from 79-84, 289 games played)

Rota (from an interview on The Sport Market with Tom Mayenknecht) - Everything just came together. We had talent, we had toughness and we had great goaltending with Richard. We got hot at the right time. It was a team that was one for all and all for one. The guys really bought into the system that Roger was doing, he was before his time using video, were prepared so good for every series we played and Roger was such a great coach and strategist. He was fun to play for. We were loaded with character players and if you look at that regular season, we finished below .500. But the interesting thing about it was that in the last nine games of the season, we had six wins and three ties. We did not play overtime back then. So we went into the playoffs feeling really good about ourselves.

Smyl - We played the Calgary Flames in the first round and it was close. It was a best of five and that benefited us. Calgary had the better team at that time, but we matched up well and we made it really miserable on their best player, that being Lanny McDonald. Tiger Williams and Lanny were best of friends, but Tiger, he made it as tough as possible on Lanny; I didn't think it was possible to be friends after how they treated each other that series.

Snepsts - It was the first time the Canucks ever hosted the opening playoff game, and to win it, that was special. They were all close games in that series. We were missing three of our top defencemen too. We didn't have Kevin McCarthy, Jiri Bubla or Rick Lanz for the entire playoffs.

Delorme - We were set to face the winner of LA and Edmonton, and we were lucky that LA won. Edmonton had a great team, they became a dynasty right after that. So we beat Calgary and ended up playing LA.

Smyl - I remember being at home and I had family at my house and they were excited we had got past the first round and everyone was trying to figure out who we'd meet in the 2nd round. The Oilers were the dominant team, they could beat you any way they wanted to, that offence led by Wayne and Mark was intimidating, but somehow the Kings beat them. I didn't watch a lot of games, but I did watch that final game. When we realized we were going to face the Kings, we knew as a group we could beat those guys. And we did in five games.

Snepsts - Richard Brodeur provided us with great goaltending. Fantastic goaltending actually. We won the first game, then I remember we lost the second game against LA, then went to Los Angeles and I remember the one game, either game 3 or 4, in the 3rd period, we only had three defencemen - there was Doug Halward, Colin Campbell and myself through the whole 3rd period. You don't see that everyday. We were just holding on.

Smyl - We faced the Black Hawks next and we knew we had a chance to beat them. I always liked it where you started in the visitor's building because you had no distractions. Our game plan was to make it as tough as possible for Tony Esposito to see the puck and to put tons of pucks on him. We went in and won the first game in double overtime, Jim Nill scored the winner. We thought it would never end. Winning that one was big.

Rota - The first two games of that series were played in Chicago and of course I had spent six seasons as a Black Hawk, so going back to play there was pretty special for me. In fact I brought my dad from Prince George down for those first two games, so it was special to have dad there too for it. We won Game 1, Jim Nill scored the overtime game-winner. In Game 2 the officiating wasn't going the way that Roger felt it should and he was very upset. So partway through the 3rd period, I was just coming off the ice when I saw this taking place: Roger grabbed a stick and then a towel on the bench and he raised it and I was thinking what's going on here, then of course I realized it was a towel of surrender. It was unbelievable.

Snepsts - It was a physical game. In the 3rd period I got a misconduct for going at it with Doug Wilson, then when the towels came out, I can't remember if I was in the penalty box or watching from the dressing room because I had another roughing misconduct after that too. There was a lot of roughhousing on the ice at those times. When I saw the towels in the air, I didn't know what was happening, I'd never seen this before. I know more players were trying to put towels on their sticks too, but they ran out of towels!

Delorme - It was all Chicago, power play, power play, power play, and that's when Roger did that mock surrender. He had had enough. I was surprised, I just kept looking and thinking what are you guys doing, what are you guys doing?? I was on the bench, looking at Roger. Stan and I think Tiger had towels on their sticks too, all of them in surrender. It was a mock surrender. He asked Larry Ashley, our trainer, for towels, and not just one towel, but all the towels, like let's all do this together guys.

Smyl - The officiating was that noticeable, we deserved some of it, but it just got worse and worse. We got off our track as a team and it threw us off and I think Roger could see that. I think I just came off from a shift and we were getting another penalty. I was sitting there and I look behind me and Roger is asking our trainer Larry Ashley for a stick and he was kind of like what do you want with a stick? So the towel went up and then Tiger and a few other players picked up on it and put towels on their sticks, like we surrender. I tried to put a towel on my stick and my towel fell on the ground. I couldn't get it to stay, it just kept falling. Bob Myers, I think was the referee at the time, well he saw all this and gave us another penalty for doing that. It was a good lesson for us as a group and Roger was sending a good message to us that he has our backs in that situation. I never talked to Roger about it. I remember talking to Tiger a bit about it and he said 'that's Roger, he's always thinking of something.'

Roger Neilson

(Canucks coach from 1981-84)

Neilson (from an interview with former Vancouver Sun columnist Archie McDonald in 1988) - Tiger Williams told me to throw some sticks on the ice, but I told him I had done that before. I got the towel and put it on the end of a stick and held it up. Either Myers didn't see it or didn't want to see it, so one of our players - Lars Lindgren I think it was - drew his attention to it. By this time Nill, Williams and Gerry Minor had all raised towels. We didn't think much of it after that. It wasn't until we got back to the airport in Vancouver and I saw a pilot on another plane waving at us on the runway with a white towel.

Watch: Youtube Video

Rota - Roger was ejected and we lost that game, but towel power was born. We came back to Vancouver and at the airport it was a sea of white towels.

Smyl - Roger's gesture meant a lot to us as players, then to see it take off the way it did was incredible. We came back to Vancouver on a commercial flight and when we had landed, we were taxiing to our gate and they had to stop the plane. I didn't have a window seat, but the players at the windows were like OH MY GOODNESS, LOOK AT THIS! And two fire trucks came out with flags on their trucks and they escorted us to our gate. I'll never forget looking out there and the firemen were on their truck waving towels and they had sticks on the sides of their doors and everything. Walking into the airport and trying to get to our vehicles and get home was absolutely nuts. Everyone had towels.

Delorme - You look at the towel power that goes on now, in all leagues, everyone has them in the playoffs. It's towel power everywhere and he started that 37 years ago. When we got back to Vancouver, we knew something special was happening.

Snepsts - We were surprised and we were shocked, especially coming on the ice, seeing everybody with towels for Game 3 in Vancouver. I don't think I'd ever seen that in sports, we were the first ones to wave towels, now a lot of teams do it. I could be wrong, but it was the first time I'd seen it.

Rota - For that first game back in Vancouver, Game 3, there were 16,000 waving white towels and that's when towel power was really born. I don't think towels were being waved or were even really a part of sports that I can recall.

Smyl - When we went out for the start of Game 3, all you could see was a sea of white towels - even talking about it now, I still get goosebumps. It was like oh my god. It was a great feeling. It was a good boost for us. We had played a lot of hockey to that point and when you're traveling and playing in such big games, it's draining. And it was the first time going through that for a lot of players. So that gave us an extra boost going into games 3 and 4 and we won those two games then wrapped it up in Chicago in five. Towel power helped galvanize Vancouver and the fans, it brought us together as a province and as a team. We weren't expected to be competing for a Stanley Cup, so it was us against the world and those towels were the symbol of that.

Snepsts - I'd like to forget the first game of the Final, that's for sure. We had a chance to win the first two games and they shut us down in their home rink. They were a good solid defensive team also. They shut us down. We kept it close, but you'd still like to win at least one game.

Smyl - We ran into one of the best teams in the league. They had the players to match our work ethic, and also had the skill with [Mike] Bossy and [Bryan] Trottier and [Dennis] Potvin, [Clark] Gillies and [Bob Nystrom], and the list goes on. We believed we had a chance and in that first game, that's the game you want to really make a difference, and we lost. Same with game 2.

Snepsts - After we won in Chicago, we went straight to New York, not back to Vancouver. So we had no idea what was going on back home. Some of the married guys would phone home and hear that things were getting crazy in Vancouver, but nobody really knew what that meant. I never talked to anybody back home, so we had no idea. It was so crazy. I can't even explain it. It took forever to get to the bus. We had our bags and we had to walk through the crowd, that took a while. We got settled on the bus, but were still overwhelmed and we couldn't believe the line-up, it went for a couple miles. The bus couldn't move!

Smyl - Coming back to Vancouver, after we landed at the gate, it took us like three hours just to get out of the airport because of the fans. The Islanders flew in after us, they got out of their gate they went up the top stairs, had their bus waiting for them and they were back at their hotel before we were and landed a couple hours after us. We got caught up in the moment being in the Stanley Cup Final and we were exhausted. Then game 3 broke our backs; we really hit the wall. We didn't play as well as we could have. It was over after that. It wasn't easy for us to get the Cup final, we weren't expected to get there, but we worked hard. I look at that group with a lot of respect for every individual did. We gave it all. Unfortunately we came up just short.

Delorme - We ran into a dynasty in the Islanders, that was their third Stanley Cup and they won again the year after. But I'm proud of what we did, despite how it ended. I've been to three Stanley Cups, all with the Canucks, one as a player and two as a scout, and two of them have gone to Game 7s. But as a player, that '82 run was the one I'll remember the most because of how we went all the way, with that team. Towel power made it extra special.

Snepsts - It's probably my most favourite memory of all from the 17 years I played. The whole playoff run. It was amazing.

Rota - I have a special bond with the players on that team and it's something that will be there for the rest of our lives. When you see guys that you haven't seen in years, there's still that special bond from '82.

Smyl - Whenever I see a sport, it doesn't matter if it's the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, soccer in Europe, whatever it is, when you see the towels - and everyone does it now - I think of Roger, that moment in Chicago and what we went through in that incredible run.

*Special thanks to Scott McArthur, @VintageCanucks, for the photo assistance. Give him a follow!

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