We shouldn’t be at all surprised if the Vancouver Canucks win the 2011 Stanley Cup.
After all, they’ve got the Pope in their corner.
A lot of ice has melted since Larry Popein played for the Canucks. But the native of Yorkton, Sask., still has a soft spot for Vancouver’s — or should that be B.C.’s? — hockey team.
In a recent conversation from his Westsyde home, where he and Joyce, his artistic wife, live, he allowed that, yes, he was pleased to see the Canucks having some success.
As he admitted, “I still have some feeling for them . . . yeah.”
To know The Pope is to know a man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. This is a man who, two months before his 81st birthday, continues to take his hockey seriously.
A 5-foot-9, 170-pounder whose 20 seasons as a professional player encompassed the 1950s and ’60s, you know he had to scratch and claw for everything he got.
Devout hockey fans will remember Popein as a smallish centre who played 449 NHL games, all but 47 of those with the New York Rangers in the six-team NHL.
How good was he?
In hockey parlance, Popein brought his lunch bucket and his hardhat to work every single day. It is said that he could hit like “thunder.” He put up 221 points and was the middleman on one of the NHL’s top lines, skating between Andy Bathgate and Dean Prentice.
These were the days of the Original Six, when there wasn’t a players’ association, meaning the owners held the hammer, and it was a sledge hammer.
“When I was up in the National Hockey League, if you played two bad games together . . . you know how you sort of assess yourself?” he says. “I used to tell Joyce, ‘You have to take the kids out today because I have to have a rest and think hockey tonight. I can’t put three bad games together.’
“I could see what the other guys were doing when they got sent down, how inconvenient it was with families. (Ownership) had no consideration, a lot of times.”
His six-season stint with the Rangers bisected 11 seasons as a player with the Canucks, the first in the Pacific Coast Hockey League and the remainder in the old Western league.
After retiring as a player — he also played most of one season with the expansion Oakland Seals — he got into coaching with the Rangers, and won a Central league title with the Omaha Knights in 1970. His roster included the likes of Jack Egers, Mike Robitaille, Don Luce, Syl Apps Jr., Denis Dupere and Andre (Moose) Dupont.
As a youngster playing road hockey in Yorkton, Popein was always Syl Apps Sr., a Hockey Hall of Famer who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“So one day day Syl Jr. tells me his parents are coming down this weekend,” Popein says. “I got pretty excited, and said we’ll have lunch. We went out and had lunch. It was just terrific.”
So . . . did he get an autograph?
“I was too embarrassed to tell him that I idolized him when I played road hockey,” The Pope says and somehow you’re not surprised.
Popein even had a 41-game stint behind the Rangers’ bench, going 18-14-9 in 1973-74 as he kept the spot warm for the legendary Emile (The Cat) Francis.
Popein called Vancouver home then, and would return each summer. In the summer of 1974, Phil Maloney took over as GM of the Canucks.
“He asked if I was going to be his assistant in Vancouver,” The Pope remembers. “I thought ‘Boy, I’ve got the best of both worlds, living right here and woking for the Canucks.’ ”
The Pope called Francis, who gave him his blessing, and provided a safety net at the same time.
“He said, ‘If it doesn’t work out you can come back any time you want’,” Popein says. “So I thought I’d take it.”
He did and he spent 12 years (1974-86) in the Canucks’ front office, being involved in everything from player personnel to advance scouting.
You know what hurts The Pope? Talking about 1982, when the Canucks made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup final. It was against the New York Islanders and he remembers it as though it ended just last week.
“I thought we’d do a lot better,” he says. “We started off in New York and we really had our chances. We had them.”
The Islanders opened with a 6-5 overtime victory.
“The second game, we came out and played pretty well again,” Popein says. “It was 6-4. They beat us 3-0 and 3-1 in Vancouver. But we had our chances to win a couple on the Island.”
It matters not to The Pope that the Islanders had won the last two Stanley Cups and would add a fourth before the Edmonton Oilers derailed their championship train in the spring of 1984.
Popein’s run with the Canucks ended when there was a change in the front office.
“Jack Gordon came in and he decided he wanted to bring someone else in, like a lot of general managers do,” Popein recalls.
Almost immediately, he says, he got a call from Cliff Fletcher, who was running the Calgary Flames. Which is how Popein came to work with the Flames from 1986 through 1992, mostly as a scout.
He was part of the Flames when they won the 1989 Stanley Cup. Popein long has been aware of the value of puck possession and faceoffs — gawd, he despises dump-and-chase and chip-and-chase — and worked with centres Joe Nieuwendyk and Joel Otto, who gave the Flames such a powerful punch up the middle during their championship season.
Popein hung in with the Flames through the 1991-92 season and then retired. The game had been good to him, but it was time to go.
Now he lives in Kamloops and watches the pro game from afar, not necessarily liking all of what he sees.
“They’ve got to take some of that fighting out of the game,” he says. “Some of the best hockey I ever see is the world hockey . . . where there’s no fighting allowed.
“Remember the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City? The hockey there? Geez, that was great. Get the puck and skate and make plays.”
Tonight, when the Boston Bruins and the Canucks clash in Vancouver in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, Popein will be watching, as he has been through the playoffs.
Yes, he was watching last week when the Canucks finished off the San Jose Sharks, perhaps with the help of the hockey gods.
“They were lucky,” The Pope says. “But the old saying is you have to be good to be lucky. They were . . .”
There is no reason to believe the good fortune won’t continue.
The Pope, that’s who.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at email@example.com, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)