June 29th, 2014 was an emotionally-charged day. At the time, I was involved in a struggling start-up company and had managed to arrange an interview on the radio to promote our business. Not just any radio station, but CKNW, the foremost news station in BC and former home of the Vancouver Canucks. It seemed like a big break for our small company, and it was a big deal for me personally too. I am among the generation of Canucks fans who grew up falling asleep to Dan Russell’s ‘Sportstalk’ on CKNW, and I still tune into the station regularly. So I was excited and nervous when I showed up at the studio that morning. I dried off my sweaty palms, shook the hosts’ hands, and got through the interview unscathed. I left on a high because I hadn’t made an ass of myself, but there wasn’t much time to bask in it. Although the radio interview seemed big, there was a more important stop that morning, and I had to hurry to make it. At Vancouver General Hospital, a support rally was being held for former Canucks enforcer Gino Odjick. Gino had recently been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition, and a press release from the Canucks had indicated he may have weeks-to-months to live. Hundreds of fans were expected to show up, and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see my childhood hero one more time.
Gino Odjick has a special place in the hearts of many Canucks fans, and he’s undoubtedly my favorite hockey player ever. He was the quintessential 90s enforcer, and the way he embraced his role with a smile and sense of humor won over a generation of Vancouverites. The media loved him too, as he was known for dropping headline-friendly comments:
- On being suspended without pay: “<My wife> won’t be able to play bingo or shop for a whole month. Maybe Colin <Campbell> will get what he deserves when I tell her she can’t play bingo or go to the stores. My advice to him is to run.”
- On contrasting himself and coach Mike Keenan: “He gets frustrated and says stupid things. I get frustrated and do stupid things.”
- On not being able to finish a game with a lead: “We had her on the dance floor, but we couldn’t take her home.”
He was our lovable version of Marty McSorley. If you messed with anyone on our team, especially superstar Pavel Bure, you were going to hear from Gino. Pavel and Gino were famously close friends, in fact, Gino named his son Bure. When Gino was asked how he managed to score a career high of 16 goals in the 1993/1994 season, he replied: “Pavel told me to go to the off-post, put my stick down, and close my eyes, and that’s what I did.” Even after Pavel left the Canucks for the Panthers, Gino kept sticking up for him. When Panther’s goalie Trevor Kidd criticized Bure, Gino, now on the Montreal Canadiens, threatened Kidd, remarking: “When he yaps and criticizes Pavel, he’s dishonoring me and my son.”
Gino’s team-first role on the Canucks was best exemplified by the brawl he instigated against the St. Louis Blues. If you haven’t seen this clip before, you’re in for a treat. It’s an incredible relic from a different era of hockey, and nowadays it’d probably be accompanied with criminal charges. To set the scene: it’s May 17, 1995, Game 6 of a first-round playoff match-up between the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks are ahead of the Blues 3-2 in the series, but are being blown out 8-2 in the 3rd period of the game:
A lot happens very quickly at the beginning of the clip:
- 0:00 – There’s a turnover in the Canucks’ end. The Canucks’ defense has lost interest in the game, vacating the front of the net, leaving center Trevor Linden (#16) to take care of it.
- 0:02 – Hall-of-Famer Glenn Anderson (#9) gets the puck by Linden on his backhand and has a solid scoring chance thwarted by a flailing kick-save from backup goalie Kay Whitmore.
- 0:03 – The rebound bounces onto Trevor Linden’s stick; he has time, but strangely shovels the puck back towards Whitmore, who is lying on his stomach and facing the other direction. Perhaps the puck bounced on Linden’s stick, it’s hard to tell in the video.
- 0:04 – Whitmore closes his arm on the puck in an attempt to stop play. Glenn Anderson, who is on the opposite side of Whitmore, spears him in the chest. Anderson’s plan was evidently to spear all the way through Whitmore’s equipment and torso so he could reach the puck on the other side and poke it in to make it a 9-2 game.
- 0:05 – Gino Odjick (#29) takes notice of the spear and his temper gets hold of him. The white ice turns red, as do the boards, rendering the Tim Horton’s logo indistinguishable. This isn’t a hockey game anymore. Gino attempts to jump over Whitmore to tackle Anderson.
- 0:06 – Trevor Linden ends up on top of Anderson, and Gino lands on top of Whitmore. A scrum ensues and Gino loses his helmet, his first piece of equipment to be discarded. While Gino gets all tied up, Linden is able to get a couple punches in on Anderson.
- 0:14 – Gino starts to break free. He gets his hands on Bill Houlder (#33). Houlder falls to his knees and turtles (I don’t blame him), but Gino grabs him by the collar and delivers a savage blow. As Gino frees his arm, his elbow pad goes flying, the second piece of equipment to be discarded.
- 0:17 – Gino lets go of Houlder and returns to the scrum. He’s looking for Anderson but can’t find him, so he just starts throwing haymakers at anything that’s blue. First, he clocks Greg Gilbert (#7), who’s humbled but stays on his feet. The next victim is Jeff Norton (#5) who goes down. Meanwhile, Linden has been wrestling with Anderson and has him pinned to the ice.
- 0:20 – Watch closely above and in the bottom left of the frame you’ll see Linden rams his knee into Anderson’s head while he’s got him pinned down. You can’t even do that in the UFC! Gino’s antics in this whole sequence are ridiculous, but Trevor’s knee might be the dirtiest.
- 0:22 – Gino circles the scrum. In about 7 seconds he’s taken out three Blues and he’s hunting for a fourth. That’s when he sees his friend Pavel Bure tied up with Bill Houlder. Houlder must’ve lost bowel control as Gino came towards him again. But Houlder thinks quickly and wrestles with Bure to avoid being punched, then Gino skates by.
- 0:26 – Gino finds Adam Creighton (#20). Creighton was a big boy at 6’5” and 220 lbs. and had a career high of 224 PIMs, but he wasn’t really a goon. Still, he was the most able combatant on the ice, as tough guy Tony Twist was not dressed for the Blues that night. Gino backs Creighton up and taunts him. Everyone else on the ice stops their shenanigans and watches this mismatched heavyweight bout. Creighton runs out of space and can’t back up any further as he bumps into the Canuck’s Jason Cullimore (#34), and Gino pounces on him.
- 0:49 – Creighton tries to clinch Gino’s jersey. So Gino’s realizes he doesn’t need a jersey anyway since he’s getting kicked out of this game and attempts to pull it over his head but it gets stuck. Creighton doesn’t attempt to capitalize as one would expect. Eventually, Gino loses his jersey, undershirt, and shoulder pads; the third, fourth, and final pieces of his equipment discarded. Now bare-chested, he proceeds to pummel Creighton and leaves him in a heap.
- 1:14 – Gino finally gets a clear view of Anderson and wants at him. He skates after Anderson and taunts him. Anderson’s reaction is hilarious. He just glides backward to avoid Gino, knowing he’s not a swift skater.
- 1:20 – Gino looks tired and skates off the ice to a rising applause.
Now, without the benefit of historical context, you would watch this clip and assume that Gino is a mad man — which to be fair he appears to be — and that it’s just senseless violence. Who rips off their shirt and chases Hall-of-Famers other than Ric Flair? But Anderson had taken Canucks player Mark Wotton out of the series with a high stick that detached his retina, speared Bure earlier in the series, and then again speared Whitmore in a blowout game. So at the time Gino’s response seemed proportional and warranted. There was a message being sent to the rest of the league that you do not mess with the Canucks, or Gino will get half-naked and whoop ass. The Canucks went on to win game 7 of the series but were swept in the second round by the Blackhawks.
In a modern context, Gino’s behavior can’t be condoned of course. We know too much about the ramifications of head injuries to be cheering for uppercuts and knees to the heads of downed opponents. But you can hear the Vancouver crowd in that clip: there’s no doubt fans loved fighting and fans really loved Gino. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that on the morning of June 29th, 2014, the response from fans at the support rally at the Vancouver General Hospital was overwhelming. The police had to shut down a major street as the sidewalk overflowed. There were news reporters and cameras everywhere. I thought I was the only one in Vancouver who still had a Gino Odjick jersey, but I was in good company. It was pretty chaotic. At first, there was a rumor going around that Gino wouldn’t physically be able to come down to greet his supporters. He came to the window of his hospital room and waved, I wondered if that’d be the most he could muster. But this turned the crowd into a frenzied state and the chants of “GINO! GINO! GINO!” intensified. Everyone just waited. I think when it became clear that no-one was leaving, Gino finally emerged from the hospital and everyone went crazy. He was being pushed in a wheelchair and looked pale and gaunt.
Gino’s condition is called ‘AL amyloidosis’. I’m not a doctor but my understanding is that it’s a rare bone marrow disorder that results in fibrous deposits around internal organs. When it affects the heart like in Gino’s case, it can lead to heart failure. It impacts men more than women, and especially elderly men. If you want to learn more about it, further information can be found on the Amyloidosis Foundation website.
Gino’s heart problems have not been his only health struggle. In December of 2013, prior to his AL amyloidosis diagnosis, Gino stated he had spent 32 months in the hospital since retiring in 2002. In particular, he had been struggling with post-concussion syndrome. Gino was quoted as saying:
“I remember, in the last two years of my career, getting a concussion, going into Philly and walking around … People just looked like Martians. They looked like they were from another planet. I couldn’t remember how to get to the rink for half the season. I was totally forgetful. I couldn’t remember what time it was, what I was supposed to be doing. It was just one turn to the right, one turn to the left to get to the rink, but I got lost just going there. Everybody (players) wanted to play me in the simplest of card games because they knew they could beat me.”
There are some dark and uncomfortable truths associated with your favorite enforcer struggling with post-concussion syndrome. Firstly, there is the fact that you probably cheered during some of the instances that left him permanently scarred and frequently hospitalized. Winning the fight does not inoculate you from a concussion. Secondly, there’s the fact that by virtue of being good at his job, Gino probably dished out more concussions than he received. There’s no doubt that Gino Odjick’s actions had long-term impacts on the mental health of other players too. He’s both the victim and the perpetrator in this situation.
When you see your childhood idol being wheeled out to what everyone thought was goodbye, it puts things in perspective. I used to think of enforcers as infallible juggernauts, but now too many have died young, and it seemed another was pending. Sure, Gino’s heart condition wasn’t the result of concussions, but we all know there’s a connection between mental and physical health. And it just didn’t seem fair that a guy who had put his own health on the line, for the team I loved, ended up being dealt such a poor hand.
I kept waiting for the bad news. The initial press release the Canucks sent out indicated Odjick had weeks-to-months to live. But weeks and months passed, and there was no news. Then stories started to trickle out that were positive. In Oct. 2014, he received a federal award in Ottawa for outstanding achievement in sport, his first public appearance since the rally. In Apr. 2015, there were reports of his life expectancy being increased to three years. In February of 2016, he participated in a couple Canucks events. Then in March of 2017, in an interview with the CBC, he stated: “Everything is in remission. Everything is good…Now, I’ve just got to keep hoping it doesn’t come back for the next 20 years.”
It’s really inspiring that Gino is doing so well. Even though the initial reports said there was neither a cure nor treatment, he received an experimental treatment in Ottawa. Modern medicine is incredible. But I like to think that the support rally at the hospital played a small part too. There was a mob of people giving out positive energy that day, and you don’t have to be a spiritual person to acknowledge that kind of support can make a big difference in a person’s mental outlook. Gino himself said: “I was just amazed at how many people were there for me…It was a special day, that’s for sure.” Going to that rally was indeed the most important thing I did on the morning of June 29th, 2014; nearly three years later and the business I was promoting on CKNW is long gone, but Gino endures.