VANCOUVER – From where he watches games at Rogers Arena, just behind the Vancouver Canucks' bench, in the tunnel to their dressing room, Ron Shute can see the special logo at center ice. It features the number 40, celebrating the number of years the Canucks have played in the National Hockey League, also indirectly noting how long they have waited to win their first Stanley Cup.
For Shute, though, the number is 50.
That's right. Fifty. He has spent a half-century with the Canucks, longer than any other member of their staff, since they were a minor-league team that played in a little wooden barn. He started as a stick boy at age 13, and he's still a stick boy at age 64 – only they call him a dressing room attendant now.
His story symbolizes Vancouver's as the Canucks hold a 1-0 lead over the Boston Bruins in the Cup final – the work, the wait, the journey, the connection between the community and the team, the childlike dream still held by grown men, the old memories mixing with the anticipation of what, finally, could come true.
It hit him early this season, when the Canucks held a pregame ceremony for the 40th anniversary. They asked him to walk out last with the Canucks' first NHL captain, Orland Kurtenbach, and present a sweater to their newest captain, Henrik Sedin(notes).
"When I was walking out there, that's kind of what came to me – all the years that I'd been doing this and all the different captains," Shute said. "It was an acknowledgment of all those years for me, and it just was very emotional for me at that time. I could hardly keep it together."
How would he feel if the Canucks won the Cup then? What would it mean to him? What would it mean to everyone?
"Everything," he said.
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It was the 1960-61 season. The Canucks were playing in the Western Hockey League, then a minor professional league one step below the NHL. It was the Original Six era, and the big clubs would blow through Vancouver in the fall to play exhibitions.
On this night the Detroit Red Wings were in town, and 13-year-old Ron Shute was in the stands as a fan when one of his schoolmates spotted him. The kid needed help. He was the stick boy for the Canucks, and the guy who was supposed to work for the visiting team hadn't shown up.
"I said, 'What would I have to do?' " Shute recalled. "He said, 'Well, you might have to give Gordie Howe a roll of tape or Alex Delvecchio a stick. You might have to get a glass of water for Bill Gadsby.' I'm speechless. I can't talk. I'm just nodding my head."
Shute served as the stick boy for the Red Wings. He said he was in "shock and awe." He saw those legends in real life, and they treated him like a human being, too. No tricks. No requests for a bucket of steam.
The Toronto Maple Leafs came to town next. Shute's schoolmate suggested he show up in case the other guy didn't show up again.
"Well, he didn't, and I did it," Shute said, "and it just started from there."
For 50 years – 40 years since the Canucks joined the NHL in 1970-71 – the job has been essentially the same. It's a little more complicated now, with more support staff and more equipment and more stuff in general, but not much. As he went through school, as he spent 34 years as a schoolteacher, even after he retired from his day job, Shute moonlighted with the Canucks as a labor of love, showing up for home games and doing all the humble duties that need to be done.
Take care of the jerseys and socks. Refresh the food, beverages, tape and towels. Clean up the dressing room, set up the bench and the penalty box, run errands for the players. All the drudgery that he says is no drudgery at all.
It's not just that he has gotten to know the players – and he has known basically everyone who has played for the Canucks in their NHL history. It's that he has gotten to know the people in and around the game. It's that he has gotten to be a part of it, all of it, the lean years and the losses and the empty seats, the high points and the wins and the chase for the Cup.
* * * * *
The first time the Canucks made the Cup final, it was 1982. They beat the Blackhawks in Chicago and went straight to New York to face the Islanders. Shute went straight to the principal of his school and asked if he could go, too.
The principal said yes, of course. So Shute, unable to find a flight out of Vancouver, caught a flight out of Seattle. He made friends with an Islanders fan and hitched a ride to the rink. When he got there, the Canucks were just finishing their morning skate before Game 1. The players were so impressed he had made it, they took up a collection and handed him a wad of cash to pay for his flight and give him some walking-around money.
Game 1 went to overtime. Shute remembers running down the tunnel to set up for the first OT intermission, only to hear the roar of the crowd and realize that meant the Canucks had lost. They ended up being swept. But in a way, that was OK.
"We really were the underdogs, didn't expect to win," Shute said. "But it was just really exciting to be there."
The second time the Canucks made the Cup final, it was 1994. This time the series went the distance. Shute was invited to join the team charter flying family and team officials to New York on the day of Game 7 against the Rangers.
But the charter was cancelled. The plane needed a part. So Stan McCammon, the Canucks' president and CEO, chartered a private jet. He had room for eight other people. Shute was one of the lucky few who hadn't headed home yet and caught a ride. They took off hoping to make the opening faceoff.
But there were headwinds, and they couldn't get clearance to land in New York, and they had to land in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and they had to wait for a customs official to come from home to clear them, and they had to hop on two helicopters for Manhattan. They took off hoping to make the end of the second period.
But there was an electrical storm, and they had to fly around it, and they didn't touch down in Manhattan until there were about five minutes left in the game, and the Canucks were losing 3-2. They hopped into waiting limousines and listened to the game on the radio, hoping for a goal and overtime.
But by the time they got to Madison Square Garden, there was about one minute left, and it was too late. The Canucks lost. One of the owners' wives called her husband and asked what they should do. He told them to go to the airport and wait for the team, and so they did.
"Never got in the Garden," Shute said.
After all those years, after all those miles, Shute had come so close to seeing the Canucks win the Cup and didn't even get to see them lose it. Maybe it was better that way, he reasoned. He said the flight home was very quiet.
"Nobody was crying or anything like that," Shute said. "It was just â¦ disappointment."
* * * * *
This is the third time the Canucks have made the Cup final. This time, unlike 1982 and 1994, it isn't new. It isn't unexpected. This team isn't an underdog; it won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team and is favored to win the Cup.
"It's kind of like you're writing a book, and you write each chapter, and you're waiting for the ending chapter," Shute said. "That's what it would mean for me. I can't imagine doing this my entire life and never having a chance to be part of a (Cup-)winning team. I think we have a really good chance this year, and I'm really hoping that â¦"
"It would mean everything," he said.
Would it mean the end for Shute? The kid they call Shooter will turn 65 in July. He has already retired from his teaching job, and every year he cleans out his locker and goes home for the summer without assuming the Canucks will ask him to come back.
But, no. Not yet. He's really hoping that the Canucks write that last chapter, but he's really hoping there's an epilogue, too.
"It's been so much fun this year," Shute said, "even if we win, I think I'd like to be back next year."
After waiting 50 years for one Cup, how much fun would it be to go for two?