EDMONTON — He was one year removed from the Rochester Institute of Technology when he made his first appearance with the Canucks and, since then, Chris Tanev and his team have taken a long and eventful journey together.
He was there in the spring of 2011 as a guileless 22-year-old rookie playing in the Stanley Cup Final, and he was there when the best-ever Canucks team collapsed on itself. He was there for John Tortorella and the bounce-back year under Willie Desjardins. And he was there for the lost four years that led to this NHL season.
Along the way, he’s suffered injuries that would have driven a lesser man from the game, but always he’s come back, ready for the next fight. And Friday night, literally at the stroke of midnight at Rogers Place, he became the unlikely hero on this unlikely Canucks team and, in that moment of triumph, it all seemed to make sense.
“He’s a warrior,” said head coach Travis Green, shortly after Tanev’s overtime goal sent the Canucks on to the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “He’s been a great mentor for our young players, a great teammate. He’s been there when Vancouver had some pretty good times and he’s been through some hard times.
“He’s a big part of where we’re trying to go. I’m happy for him, for sure.”
Green had a lot of company on this night.
Earlier in the postseason qualifying round, Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler wondered aloud about the existence of hockey gods, wondered if they didn’t sit in the rafters and dispense justice to the mortals who play this game. If you believe they exist, then you believe they looked down on Tanev in Game 4 of the Canucks’ best-of-five series with the Minnesota Wild.
Just 11 seconds into overtime,Tanev took the puck along the wall like he’s done a thousand times before, walked into the middle of the ice, and let go a harmless wrister that missed teammate J.T. Miller’s stick, missed Wild defenceman Matt Dumba and found its way behind Alex Stalock into the back of the Wild net. That goal set off a mob scene, partly for the Canucks’ first postseason victory since the season in which Tanev first joined the team, and partly for the player who scored the goal.
“He does a lot of quiet work,” goalie Jacob Markstrom said of Tanev. “He’s an outlet for (rookie wunderkind Quinn Hughes) and lets him play his game, and he’s saved my behind multiple times. It was a great feeling to win the game and the series, and for Chris to get that goal was unbelievable.”
What about your blue-line partner, Quinn?
“Chris is the heart and soul of this team,” said Hughes. “It was awesome to see him score there. He’s been big for me on and off the ice.”
The series with the Wild, in fact, represented one of the high-water marks of Tanev’s career with the Canucks all the way around. In addition to the game winner Friday night, he chipped in two assists, giving him four points in the series. He averaged 22:34 of ice time per game, behind only Hughes and longtime comrade Alex Edler. In the 3-0 Game 3 win he blocked five shots.
Hughes, meanwhile, led all Canucks scorers with six points. The kid from Michigan doesn’t need a lot of help, but in the reliable veteran he’s found the perfect partner.
“I don’t think you can put a price on it,” Hughes answered when asked about the role Tanev played in his development this season. “He does a lot of things in the D-zone I’m not capable of doing. As we’ve played longer and longer together, our offensive game has gotten better.”
Tanev and Hughes formed an enduring partnership this season, and therein lies a story for the 30-year-old Torontonian. Tanev played all 69 Canucks games in 2019-20 before the COVID-19 pause, which is the first time that’s happened since, well, forever. We don’t have the space to recite his injury history here. Suffice to say there are some 25 recorded entries on his medical chart that have cost him almost two full seasons (152 games).
He’s missed games with the mumps. He’s missed games with food poisoning. He lost 6½ teeth in 2018 when a puck deflected and caught him squarely in the mouth, raising the question, how do you lose half a tooth? He suffered broken legs and broken feet blocking shots and the Tanev memorial walking boot has become a permanent part of Canucks lore.
This season, he finally stayed healthy, sort of, but he still needed the intervention of a global pandemic to recover for the postseason. In the Canucks’ final game before the pause, March 10 against the New York Islanders, Tanev suffered what was believed to be a knee injury when he was hit by Anders Lee.
He was immediately pronounced week to week, a prognosis that the COVID-19 outbreak would make irrelevant. He was cleared to return six weeks later.
Again, if you doubt the existence of the hockey gods, perhaps you should rethink your position.
“It’s awesome,” Tanev said after delivering the series winner against the Wild. “Obviously, the last few years have been tough and we haven’t won much lately. It’s fun to win. We have a great group of guys and we’re all enjoying every minute right now.”
There is, of course, one more act to play out in Tanev’s story with the Canucks. He’s headed into unrestricted free agency this off-season on a team that’s already tight to the cap, and there’s long been a thought this would be his final season in Vancouver.
But Tanev wants to stay and GM Jim Benning prizes the attributes he brings to the table. The Canucks will try to sign him.
The rest will be up to the hockey gods.
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