VANCOUVER — In the year since he retired from the NHL, former Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund has had a chance to reflect on the good times and the disappointments.
He’s thought about the friends he’s made and the opportunities that slipped through his fingers.
During his 15-year career, Naslund wore the uniforms of three clubs, but the team that had the most impact on his life was the Canucks. That’s why Naslund was so appreciative when Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis called to say the Canucks had decided to retire his sweater.
“I felt humbled and proud,” Naslund, 36, said Thursday during a telephone conference call from his home in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. “When you are done, and you reflect on everything that has been going on throughout your career, getting a phone call like that means a lot.”
Naslund’s No. 19 will be hoisted to the rafters at the Rogers Arena on Dec. 11 when Vancouver plays the Tampa Bay Lightning. The ceremony will be part of the Canucks’ plans to celebrate 40 seasons in the NHL.
Naslund will join Trevor Linden and Stan Smyl as the only three Canucks to have their jerseys retired.
Gillis said the Canucks “don’t want to be in the sweater retirement business,” and have established a high set of criteria for retiring a number.
Naslund meets that standard by combining great skill on the ice with a devotion to community service.
“He was an exciting player who, in the community, was outstanding,” said Gillis, who was Naslund’s former agent. “He had all the attributes we were looking for.”
Naslund spent parts of three seasons playing for Pittsburgh before being traded to the Canucks in March 1996 for Alek Stojanov. He spent the next 11 seasons in Vancouver and was the Canucks’ captain from 2000 to 2008.
He led Vancouver in scoring for seven seasons, scored 30 or more goals six times and enjoyed three consecutive seasons with 40 or more goals. The left-winger scored 346 goals as a Canuck and remains Vancouver’s leading scorer with 756 points.
His best season was in 2002-03, when he had 48 goals and 56 assists for 104 points and won the Lester B. Pearson Award, which is now known as the Ted Lindsay Award. The award goes to the league MVP as voted by the players.
Naslund was part of a core group of Canucks that included Brendan Morrison, Todd Bertuzzi, Mattias Ohlund, Ed Jovanovski and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The team played an exciting, fast-skating, high-scoring game.
“Probably the fondest memory I have is we had a bunch of guys that were the same age that grew up together in the early 2000’s,” Naslund said. “We created a pretty strong personal bond with each other because we had a lot of fun together.”
Watching Henrik Sedin develop from a wide-eyed rookie to the player that won this year’s Hart Trophy as league MVP after winning the scoring race was a joy for Naslund.
“I’ve seen the potential all along,” said Naslund. “It’s been a maturity that’s gotten him to this point.
“I’m proud and happy for what he’s done.”
During Naslund’s tenure, the Canucks produced 100-point seasons and won division titles, but never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. That was his biggest regret.
“The disappointment of not getting to the point where I firmly believe we had an opportunity to get, that being the Stanley Cup,” he said. “Losing the way we did, especially the ’02-’03 and ’03-’04 seasons were tough ones.
“At that point, I felt we were close but just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Naslund was soft-spoken, almost shy, but often brutally honest when dealing with the media. Few people outside the dressing room saw his dry sense of humour.
His circumspect nature was often misread by fans. Many questioned if he had the proper attitude to be captain.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to be a captain in a Canadian city,” Naslund said. “When you want to do well, and things are not going well, you are faced with some tough questions.”
Naslund left the Canucks as a free agent in the summer of 2008 and signed with the New York Rangers. He had 24 goals and 46 points before retiring at the end of the season.
Getting out of the fish bowl of Vancouver was a refreshing change for Naslund.
“It wasn’t expected for me to have a certain role,” he said. “I was new to the team, new to my teammates and the media.
“I thought that was exciting to go through that again. It was almost like you were a rookie again. I wasn’t in a rookie’s body unfortunately.”
Naslund played about 30 games with his old Swedish team MoDo last year but says he’s now hung up his skates for good. Returning to Sweden has been an adjustment for Naslund, his wife and three children.
“There’s a lot of things I miss about playing and miss about living in North America,” he said. “That being said, I’m very happy with my decision and have no regrets about that.”