Canucks give fans reason to believe

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- They party in the streets after every game, swelling in numbers as the journey gets one step closer to the once unthinkable dream.

Three wins from a first-ever Stanley Cup for their beloved Vancouver Canucks, fans in these parts are displaying the kind of pride and passion that's at a feverish pitch for a market that had a loser mentality for years.

"I think the maturation process of this city as a sports town is really kind of symbolized by this current team and the success they're having," the greatest Canuck of all, Trevor Linden, told ESPN.com this week. "And I think it feeds off the pride Vancouver and British Columbia took from hosting the Olympics last year. I think Vancouverites and British Columbians have got that feeling of, 'We are a big league place.' And they've begun to be proud of where they are, and they now take pride in their sports teams. I think it's a whole culmination of a few different things."

It's as though the party never ended from February 2010 in this town. For a city that's never really won a whole lot through its sports teams, the Winter Olympics, the record-setting gold medals won by the host country and of course the hockey victory that shook a country, helped spur the transformation of Vancouver from its insecure sporting roots to a place now rivaling the very best hockey markets in the land.

"I think the influence of the greatest Games ever, you saw how the crowds reacted," former Canucks GM and coach Pat Quinn told ESPN.com on Friday. "There is a confidence that grows with that."

"That was a great example last year of what the town can be with the success of the Olympics and all the celebrating they got to do," added former Canucks coach Marc Crawford. "They can't wait for it to happen again."

Crawford, like Quinn, has kept Vancouver as his family home despite his other NHL coaching stops after his time here. Crawford has seen the evolution of this city and its love for its hockey team, deserving credit himself along with former GMs Brian Burke and David Nonis for helping turn things around in the late 1990s.

"The town oftentimes reflects the disappointment of what has happened," Crawford said. "You always talk as a player about trust and whether or not the players will trust the system, trust each other, trust what's going on, I think that's a lot of what happened with the fans here, too. How much could they trust the team? They consistently never got them to the places they wanted to get to although they got close a couple of times. And with this club, what I see more than anything, is so much belief. And the belief comes from a lot of things. It comes from a consistent group of people and coaches going through the journey together and learning along the way. I think it also comes from the belief of how good the city can be. They saw what happened with the Olympics. You just build on that. There's a great deal of confidence now in this city, and you see that every day now. You can't walk three feet if you're somewhat known as a hockey personality without someone wanting to talk about the Canucks. You see symbols and flags and people wearing jerseys. It's everywhere."

And it's not just in Vancouver.

"This team is a British Columbia team," Linden said. "Wherever you go in this province, people identify with the Vancouver Canucks as their hockey team. It's very much a regional team. And I think the passion for this team has really built through the last decade. It's really at a fever pitch right now, for sure."

It sure wasn't that way when Linden, easily the most popular player in franchise history, first came here.

"In the '80s, there was a lot of apathy in this market," Linden said. "People didn't care. My first game in '88, opening night at Pacific Coliseum, I think there were 9,000 fans there."

People didn't care then because they had been burned too many times by a franchise that had accomplished next to nothing in its first two decades in the league. But then came Pat Quinn.

"My opinion, the turnaround started with Pat Quinn," Linden said of the former Canucks GM and coach. "We won the Smythe Division, we had a couple of 100-point seasons in '92 and '93, went to the finals in '94 and that was a high point."

"I think the first real change was when Pat took over," Crawford concurred. "To me, the sentiment then -- and I was still a player here -- there was the sense that someone was really in charge now and they're heading in the right direction."

Quinn played for the expansion Canucks in the early 1970s. When he returned as GM in 1987, he couldn't believe what he was walking into.

"It was in terrible shape at the time," Quinn said. "They were doing about 6,500 people average gate."

The team had zero buzz in the city.

"Don't forget those sweaters they went through," Quinn added. "A lot of people just said, 'I don't want to be part of that.'"

But under Quinn, the transformation began.

"We drafted a kid named Linden," Quinn said. "He was a big part of the philosophical change. These kids had lost for [so] long that they believed they were losers. So did the fans."

The Quinn/Linden Canucks, with a little help from an electrifying goal scorer named Pavel Bure, captured the hearts of the city with some of the best hockey the franchise had ever seen to that point. A thrilling seven-game finals loss to the Rangers in 1994 was the high-water mark.

Still, after some heady times, the Canucks hit hard times again in the late 1990s. Attendance dwindled, and the franchise was back to rock bottom, a feeling all too familiar for these fans.

Enter the Burke/Crawford era.

"I remember, with Brian, he forced me to go to a season-ticket holder summit," Crawford recalled. "And all it was, was an inquisition. It was brutal. It was absolutely brutal. I give Brian the most credit in the world because he sat there and he took abuse and he took hard questions. Fans were expressing their anger about how much they had supported the team and how much they had been let down."

Burke's teams, led by the emergence of Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, reignited this market and brought back playoff hockey.

"Brian rebuilt the franchise, and the passion came back again," Linden said. "They had a good, young team that was exciting to watch."

But that team never got over the ultimate hump, either, and again fans in these parts were left wondering whether it was just never going to happen.

Current GM Mike Gillis was brought in three years ago. He inherited some key pieces from the Burke/Nonis era in the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo, but Gillis and assistant GM Laurence Gilman also deserve tremendous credit for the way they've molded the rest of the roster in the salary-cap era, persuading their core players to take less money to stay and allowing the powers that be to build a deeper team around them.

In their 40th-anniversary season, there has never been a better Canucks team.

"They play exciting hockey. They've done a tremendous job," Quinn said.

Seemingly in step with the play of the team on the ice, the fan base also has risen to new heights. And there are few better markets in the NHL today.

"I played in Montreal," Linden said. "There's not a whole lot of difference now between Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto when you consider the market and the interest in the team."

It's been 40 long seasons. If the Canucks can beat the Bruins, however, it will have been worth it.

"I think there are steps along the way that in some ways need to be taken," Crawford said. "You have to crawl before you walk. You have to experience the lows and the disappointments before maybe the hockey gods let you experience the great highs. I think everybody in Vancouver right now really senses the opportunity."

Quinn says winning the Cup would have a lasting impact on the fan base and market.

"If they win, it legitimizes that franchise," Quinn said. "Those people will grow again. They'll know more about themselves. For a lot of years, the belief was that everything bad would happen to them. Like their media, they had cement boots on and were ready to go to the bridge if things went bad. It was always 'Poor us'; that was the mentality for the longest time. They're on the verge of breaking out of it."

If the Canucks finally win, the painful loss of 1994 will perhaps fade into the background. But not for everybody.

"The loss in '94 was crushing," Linden said. "It's the most empty feeling one can ever have. And I don't know that that will ever be repaired. Having said that, I will be thrilled if they win for the organization and the fans of this team because they are some of the best fans in the world. I would be thrilled for them, and I'd be super happy. And besides, it would give us something to talk about besides 1994."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.