VANCOUVER, Canada — For most of their first 21 seasons, the Vancouver Canucks were the NHL's version of the Clippers:
--A butt of jokes.
--An object of pity.
--A civic embarrassment.
Around the league, they were known as the Canuckleheads.
"We can't win at home and we can't win on the road," former coach Harry Neale once said of the team. "It's my failure as a coach that I can't find anywhere else for us to play."
But long-suffering Canuck fans are enjoying a respite.
After 15 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the longest ongoing losing streak in pro sports in North America and an NHL record for futility, the Canucks might finish with their heads above water this season.
Although they have struggled lately--they are 4-7 since Nov. 16, when a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks lifted them a heady 10 games above .500--the Canucks have led the Smythe Division since opening night of the season, when a goal by Trevor Linden with 19 seconds to play defeated the Sharks, 4-3.
Only the three other division leaders--the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals--have more points than the Canucks, who will take an 18-11-3 record into tonight's game against the Kings at the Forum.
Home attendance has increased by about 270 a game, to an average of 15,421 in the 16,123-seat Pacific Coliseum, and in 18 home games, the Canucks already have played before seven sellout crowds. At least five more games, including two against the Kings, also are expected to sell out.
Last season, only nine of 40 Canuck home games sold out.
Sale of Canuck merchandise, worn proudly during the team's miraculous run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1982 but often shoved to the back of the closet in more recent times, has increased by about six times in Vancouver, a club official said, and is more in demand throughout the league.
"People like to jump on the nouveau clubs--the clubs that tend to soar to the top unexpectedly," said Larry Donen, director of retail operations for the Canucks.
That description fits the Canucks, who were expected to languish behind the Kings, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in the Smythe Division, but have instead soared past them--to the surprise of nearly everyone.
"The last time I saw the Canucks in first place in the NHL standings," trainer Larry Ashley told the Toronto Sun two months ago, "I was reading the newspaper upside down."
By now, he must be getting used to the sight, although an 11-game unbeaten streak enabled the Winnipeg Jets to move into a share of the Smythe lead for two days this week. The Canucks' lead over the third-place Kings is nine points. Vancouver leads Edmonton by 10 points, Calgary by 11.
The Canucks have benefited from prolonged slumps by the division's big three.
If not for Linden's goal on opening night, Vancouver might have become disheartened, stumbled out of the gate and staggered through another lost season.
Instead, the Canucks have only recently been slowed. Their 8-1-1 start was the best in club history and has kept them afloat while they have floundered during the last four weeks.
Now comes the tough part.
Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun wrote this week that their recent slide signaled the start of "the annual Canuck calamity."
Have they reverted to form, or are they merely slumping?
"As coaches, we were concerned with how we would handle tough times because we haven't handled tough times well in the past," Coach Pat Quinn said this week. "Every team has them. But this team seemed to not have the resiliency, or mental toughness, to overcome these tough times. We're being tested now, and we'll see how we handle it."
Their history suggests that they will not handle it well.
Owners of a 17-17-3 record after a 4-3 victory over the Kings last Dec. 22, they won only four games in the next two months, losing 19 and tying four. They qualified for the playoffs--no major achievement in the NHL--in their last game of the regular season, a 3-2 overtime victory over Winnipeg that gave them a 28-43-9 record.
In the playoffs, though, they performed admirably, extending the Kings before bowing out in a competitive six-game series.
Four players acquired in a late-season trade with the St. Louis Blues--center Cliff Ronning, wings Sergio Momesso and Geoff Courtnall and defenseman Robert Dirk--provided size, speed and depth, and their strong showing against the Kings seemed to invigorate the team.
The Canucks also seemed to benefit from the coaching of Quinn, who had been the team's president and general manager since being spirited away from the Kings five years ago. Quinn assumed his third role last Jan. 31, firing Coach Bob McCammon in the midst of the Canucks' 4-19-4 tumble.
"Most of the criticism was put on me for not putting a very good team together," Quinn said. "So, the only answer for me was to step into the breach myself as the coach.
"I thought we had some decent players and I thought I could help them, so that's why I decided to go behind the bench."