For 712 games (regular season and playoffs), Ryan Kesler gave everything he had for the Vancouver Canucks.
You could never question the effort of the former Selke Trophy winner, who became one of the best two-way players in the NHL for a prolonged period of time. And nobody will ever forget his performance against the Nashville Predators during the Canucks’ run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, when he scored 11 points in six games.
He’s one of the best players in Canucks history, one who put his body on the line every night and nearly helped bring a Stanley Cup to Vancouver. He’s tied for eighth all-time in Canucks playoff scoring (more than Alex Burrows) and 11th in regular season points (ahead of Greg Adams).
And yet, when he’s introduced to fans on Wednesday as part of the Sedins’ jersey retirement ceremony (as was reported by The Athletic’s Thomas Drance), we don’t know how fans will react.
Kesler was one of the most popular players during the Canucks’ heyday. At one point in time, you’d see as many (or more) #17 jerseys as you would for either Sedin, Burrows, or Roberto Luongo.
But the way in which he left town left a sour taste in people’s mouths. Not only did he request a trade, but he also used his no-trade clause to handcuff the team, limiting their bargaining power.
The result was an underwhelming return for a marquee player, and a strained relationship with fans, who booed Kesler every time he returned to Rogers Arena.
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“When you touch the puck and you get booed every time, it definitely hurt,” a more vulnerable Kesler said recently on his new podcast with Kevin Bieksa.
“I know it was a tough break up, but [Canucks fans will] always have a place in my heart.”
Kesler appears ready to mend fences. The 35-year-old centre is still technically a member of the Anaheim Ducks, but he may have already played his last NHL game due to a serious hip injury.
“I really cherish the time I had in Vancouver,” Kesler said in an interview with Sportsnet 650 last year. “Looking back at the teammates and the fans and the time that I had there, it was an unbelievable ride and I was thankful to have the chance to play in a Canadian market with passionate fans.”
On Monday, Kesler received a pair of important endorsements from Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
“He’s meant a lot to us,” said Daniel Sedin at a media event at Rogers Arena to kickstart Sedin Week. “He drove up our team. When he was at his best, he took away the other team’s best players and he put up a lot of points. He pushed us in practice.
“I think this city should look at him as a very good player. He’s a good person. I think people that know him know he’s a good guy.”
“The only thing you need to remember is how good he was when he was here,” said Henrik. “The team had been through its peak and he wanted to move on. That’s not the first guy that’s wanted to move on from the team. He was a really big part of the best team that we’ve been on and maybe the best team that’s played in this franchise.
“That’s all you got to think about.”
If Canucks fans are willing to forgive and forget, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Pavel Bure forced his way out of town by refusing to play while under contract during the 1998-99 season. He was vilified and booed when he returned as a member of the Florida Panthers. Today, he’s back to being one of the most beloved Canucks of all time and remembered for what he did on the ice.
Are Canucks fans willing to welcome back Kesler with open arms? We’ll find out on Wednesday.