VANCOUVER – It was like old times, one more time for Markus Naslund.
He was at centre ice, surrounded by teammates, hearing the cheer of the crowd. The difference this time was the former Vancouver Canuck captain was having his jersey retired by the NHL team.
“Young hockey players in northern Sweden never dream of a night like this,” the soft-spoken Swede said during an emotional 50-minute ceremony Saturday night before Vancouver dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I can’t tell you all how special it is to be back home here. This is a special night for me and my family to be united with so many good friends.”
Naslund tapped his heart and waved to the crowd who chanted “Nassy, Nassy.”
The entire Canuck team took the pre-game warmup wearing No. 19 sweaters with Naslund’s name on the back. Naslund’s wife, his three children, his parents and his sister joined him at centre ice.
Also on hand to honour the Canucks’ all-time scoring leader were former teammates Brendan Morrison, Dan Cloutier and defenceman Mattias Ohlund, now a defenceman with Tampa Bay. Among the other dignitaries was former Canuck general manager Brian Burke and Pat Quinn, the one-time Canuck GM who obtained Naslund in a trade from Pittsburgh for Alek Stojanov.
Todd Bertuzzi, who along with Naslund and Morrison formed the high-scoring West Coast Express line, made a video appearance.
“It hasn’t been the same,” said Bertuzzi, who now plays for Detroit. “You’ve been missed on my left-hand side.”
Bertuzzi saluted his friend with a bottle of beer, then pulled on a Naslund jersey, bringing cheers from the crowd.
Naslund joins former captains Trevor Linden and Stan Smyl as the only Canucks to have their numbers retired. Both Linden and Smyl attended the ceremony.
Quiet and reserved as a player, Naslund managed to keep his emotions in check.
“I expected it to be a memorable night but this is way beyond,” the 37-year-old native of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, said afterwards. “I was trying not to be nervous and just take it all in.
“That’s what I did. To feel the energy and love from the fans is incredible.”
The Canucks presented Naslund with two tickets to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and a painting.
During the ceremony, current Canuck captain Henrik Sedin talked about Naslund’s influence.
“As young players you were someone we really looked up to,” said Henrik, flanked by twin brother Daniel. “Your skills and the way your carried yourself on and off the ice was something we really admired.”
While Naslund never brought a Stanley Cup to Vancouver he played a role in keeping the Canuck franchise alive.
His contributions on the ice helped transform the Canucks from laughable losers playing before empty seats to a respected NHL team that sells out all its games. His charitable work in the community continued a tradition Canucks management uses as a yardstick when deciding on what players to acquire.
“I was part of a team that went from a few years when the franchise was struggling to being a contender,” he said.
“We never got all the way, which was the goal, but we still got to be part of the whole hockey hype coming back to the city. That was such an enjoyable ride to see the stadium going from half full to full every night.”
Naslund spent parts of three seasons playing for Pittsburgh before being traded to the Canucks in March 1996. He spent 12 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 honour goes to the league MVP as voted by the players.
Naslund left the Canucks asa free agent in the summer of 2008 and signed with the New York Rangers. He retired after one season there.
Earlier in the day, Naslund, Linden and Smyl were on hand when the Canucks unveiled their Hall of Heroes, an interactive display at Rogers Arena dedicated to players who have had their numbers retired.
While Naslund chatted with reporters, his son Alex and daughters Isabella and Rebecca watched highlights of their father on the ice. They grinned and pointed at pictures of their father when he was much younger.
The Canucks were a bad team when Naslund came to Vancouver. They would miss the playoffs for the next four years.
The arena was over half empty on many nights. There even was talk of the franchise moving.
With Burke as GM, Mark Crawford as coach, and Naslund serving as captain, the Canucks rebuilt themselves on the ice. The team also reconnected with the community.
Linden said Naslund was an important building block in that reconstruction.
“He was a guy that picked this franchise up when it really needed it,” said Linden. “When you look back to the late 1990s, the franchise had gone through a lot of turmoil.
“Markus was named captain and that was the starting point of a very exciting and fun era. He gave a lot of himself to this organization. He really put his heart and soul into what he was doing here.”
Naslund always had the respect of the dressing room, but didn’t always win the hearts of the fans. While Linden was revered, Naslund was often jeered.
His reserved manner was sometimes mistaken for indifference.
The decision to retire Naslund’s jersey has been fodder for sports talk radio programs. Critics point out he never led the Canucks past the second round of the playoffs.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo said Naslund deserves the honour.
“He’s one of the faces of this franchise,” said Luongo. “When you think of the Vancouver Canucks, there are a handful of guys you think of. Markus is definitely one of them.”