Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trevor Linden: 4 Autographed Cards

As a hockey fan born in the late 70s but raised in the 80s and 90s, Trevor Linden was the quintessential member of the Vancouver Canucks - Captain Canuck. Sure, I've heard the argument that other players may have been more important, namely Pavel Bure, and while there's no denying Bure had talent and capabilities way beyond what Linden was born with, he never could be counted upon to keep trooping once injuries started to occur - Linden did just that, more than willing to use his leadership skills in a new footsoldier role when he could no longer sustain All Star form, and he kept showing up when it mattered until the very end - by which I mean playoff game-winning goals just before retiring despite being relegated to fourth-line duties.

In that respect, and all proportions kept, he was pretty much the Mark Messier to Bure's Wayne Gretzky: a born leader with higher-than-normal skills who was willing to step back for the good of the team. Keep in mind Messier won a Cup in Edmonton without Gretzky - even the Great One could never get to it without his faithful companion.

Linden's importance in my youth is the reason why I'm trying out a new layout: instead of presenting all the cards at once and writing a history of Linden's career, I'm going to look at them individually and explain why each card is special to me. They were all part of a package I sent Mr. Linden, along with a fan letter, care of the Canucks Alumni Association on September 29th; I got them back yesterday, December 14th, all signed in black sharpie - six weeks later, a tremendous return, especially considering he is no longer actively involved with the team.

First up, a 1993-94 Fleer Ultra card (#109), by Fleer:
This is not only the Canucks jersey I grew up knowing (before they started switching uniforms every two years), but it's also how I remember Linden the best: a giant 'C' on his chest, eyes on the puck underneath his Cooper helmet, very close to a faceoff circle. He was in his prime, a point-per-game youngster who was about to lead his team to one win of the 1994 Stanley Cup, losing Game 7 by a score of 3-2 - both Canucks goals by Linden.

Next up, a 1991-92 Series Two card from the Pro Set collection (card #586, Captain sub-set):
Same era, home version of the jersey. For a few years, their home jersey was an atrocious yellow, but this white one is actually a pretty sight. Again with the Cooper equipment, and this time, notice how he wore the tongue on his skates: bent towards the front. You can also notice by his position that he's back-checking - and in the process of changing from skating backwards to forward. The 1990s were really the first decade where many superstars started paying attention to their defensive play, usually captains (Linden, Mike Modano, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic).

Thirdly, from Topps' 2000-01 Stadium Club set (card #55):
When Linden's then-NHL-leading streak of playing in 482 consecutive games ended in December 1996, it marked a turn in his career; injuries would soon become habitual. Additionally, as a display of his team-first mentality, he relinquished his captaincy to Mark Messier when he and Mike Keenan joined the Canucks to start the 1998-99 season. Soon after, Keenan sent him to the New York Islanders, who didn't keep him long before sending him to the Montréal Canadiens. Unfortunately for him, his arrival with the Habs came during the worst 5-year period of the team's 101-year history; to make matters worse, his injuries forced him to play a total of 107 games with the team over two seasons before the team lost patience and sent him to the Washington Capitals. The picture of the card reflects his passage in Montréal very well - the team was so often overpowered and manhandled that they were far from being even the shadows of the team whose reputation pretty much made the NHL. The card's design fits well with the story: notice the faux-used-ice at the bottom, it's almost like the one on the Fleer card, the first one I mentioned. Topps dropped the ball on that one, which probably explained why I found packs of this series at a discount-dollar store three years after they'd come out.

Lastly, from Topps' 2002-03 O-Pee-Chee set (card #180):
By this time, Markus Naslund was captain of this team, and his line with Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison was the most feared in the NHL - they could crush you with hard hits, blue-collar goals, or nasty plays, some of which are still subject of court cases. I've always said Naslund should have offered Linden his captaincy back, although it is clear even to me that Captain Canuck was not going to be this team's go-to offensive force on a nightly basis. Still, as a show of respect, it would have been nice. But Linden didn't bulge, put the team first, and was rewarded with an 'A' on his chest - the next best thing. Against all odds, he even managed a few more decent 40-or-near-point seasons before calling it quits. He retired 20 years to the day after being drafted, and the team retired his number on December 17, 2008.

When you're building a team, you look for specific building blocks to center the whole thing, to keep it grounded. Ideally, you want the best player(s) in the world, but when that's not possible, you want someone who will make the effort to match that of the best player, who can inspire those around him to surpass themselves, who can lead the pack. It's why I would choose to build a team around a Sakic rather than a Forsberg, a Carbonneau rather than a Damphousse, an Yzerman before a Fedorov, a Lidstrom before a Datsyuk, an Alfredsson before a Heatley, a Saku Koivu ahead of a Selanne.

It's why I say Linden is the best Canuck skater of all time. Hall Of Fame worthy? Probably not, but definitely deserving of having his number retired - and that, definitely before Naslund or even Bure.

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