Vancouver's towel-power tradition has Quebec roots
U.S. football coach and sports analyst John Madden was talking one day about traditions. In Madden's view, which he shared with everyone else in the room, was that the National Football League had no traditions, like bunting on opening day in baseball. Sports, according to Madden, need traditions.
The lack of traditions is not a problem in hockey. Just look at various cities throughout the NHL. Since 1952, there has been the annual tossing of an octopus on the ice at Detroit Red Wings home playoff games. Phoenix Coyotes fans come to the arena dressed in white for the "White Out," started with when the franchise was in Winnipeg. Other traditions include the growing of playoff beards, throwing hats onto the ice after a player scores three goals, and in Vancouver there is the "Towel Power," or the waving of white towels.
Canucks' "Towel Power" (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)
A Vancouver-Chicago playoff series in 1982 launched "Towel Power." It started when Canucks coach Roger Neilson got fed up with what he thought was bad officiating in a game against the Chicago Black Hawks in Game 2 at Chicago Stadium. In protest, Neilson placed a white towel on the end of a hockey stick and held it up as if he was waving the white flag of surrender. The players sitting on the bench followed their coach's lead and placed towels on the ends of their sticks. Vancouver lost 4-1 that night and headed home with a split of the first two games of the Campbell Conference Finals.
Neilson's gesture cost him some money as he was fined by the League, but fans at home were paying attention
When the Canucks returned to Vancouver, they saw fire trucks with white towels hanging from the fenders. At home for Game 3, the Pacific Coliseum was loaded with white towels. "Towel Power" fever spread quickly among Canucks fans in British Columbia.
"Towel Power" may be remembered for starting in Chicago, but in reality it began during the regular season in Quebec City. Only, no one knew that at the time.
Harry Neale was the Canucks' coach during the 1981-82 season, but near the end of the season he was suspended after defending one of the NHL's toughest guys of all time, Dave "Tiger" Williams, in a scuffle with Nordiques fans in Quebec City.
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"We had a little trouble in Vancouver," said Neale about the incident at Le Colisee. "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. (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."
Neale and Canucks defenseman Doug Halward were suspended for the final games of the regular season and into the playoffs. After the Quebec City incident, Neale sensed that his players had bonded under Neilson and told soon-to-be-retiring GM Jake Milford to keep Neilson behind the bench for the 1982 playoff run.
That season, the Canucks were a mediocre hockey team that finished the season with a losing record. But they finished with a winning streak and ended second in the Smythe Division. They swept the Calgary Flames in three games in the opening-round of the playoffs, and knocked out the "Miracle on Manchester" Los Angeles Kings in five games to advance the conference final matchup with the Black Hawks.
"And Roger reminded me, every time I talked to him, if he had not taken over from me, we would have never gone to the Final in 1982. And I told Roger, 'You're right. If I had been coaching, we would never have lost to the New York Islanders,'" Neale said with a smile.
Vancouver won the opening game in Chicago in double-overtime, but lost Game 2. It was during the second period that Neilson waved the white towel after referee Bob Myers called four-consecutive penalties on the Canucks. Game 3 was back in Vancouver and the first towels came out. Vancouver won the game, 4-3. Game 4 produced even more towels and Vancouver again won and went back to Chicago for Game 5.
An NHL tradition was born. Vancouver would win Game 5 in Chicago and face the powerful, two-time defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canucks had a 5-4 lead in Game 1 late in the third period, but Mike Bossy scored to tie it, and in the dying seconds of the first overtime. Bossy intercepted a Harold Snepsts' clearing pass and scored with two seconds remaining to give New York the series lead with a 6-5 victory. The Islanders scored three unanswered third-period goals in Game 2 and beat the Canucks 6-4. The towels didn't help in Vancouver as Islanders goaltender Billy Smith shut out the Canucks 3-0 in Game 3, and the Isles closed out the series in Game 4 with a 3-1 win.
The Canucks had lost, but were giving a parade and had found a new identity -- Towel Power. A tradition that never would have been born had a Quebec Nordiques fan decided not to mess with Tiger Williams.