Most hockey fans know the story of how Vancouver Canuck coach waved a white towel in mock surrender to the officiating. It was late in game two of the 1982 Stanley Cup semi-finals against the Chicago Black Hawks, and the Canucks had just went down 4-1 on a Denis Savard goal. The towels went up, Neilson was tossed from the game (and later fined $1000) and a tradition was born. What makes a coach get to such a point of frustration? With the help of a great little book by long-time Vancouver journalist Tony Gallagher, we can learn what actually happened. Gallagher's book "Towels, Triumph and Tears" was published right after the playoff run of '82.
Vancouver had advanced to the semis that year sweeping the Calgary Flames and beating the "Miracle on Manchester" L.A. Kings 4 games to 1. As unimpressive as the Canucks regular season record was at 30-33-17, they had still not played a team with a superior record than them until the Islanders in the final. The 'Nucks pulled out a 2-1 overtime win in game 1 against Chicago on a goal by Jim Nill. Then came the towel game.
Down 2-0 going into the third, referee Bob Myers had already assesed five penalties to Vancouver and two to Chicago. Early in the period, Stan Smyl floated a fifty footer past Murray Bannerman, but soon after Denis Savard made it 3-1. At the five minute mark, Harold Snepsts was given a misconduct while tussling with Grant Mulvey while Hawk Terry Ruskowski was unpenalized in a skirmish with the much smaller Gerry Minor. The next penalty in the words of Tony Gallagher; "At 11:46 Halward was penalized when he had his stick in the vicinity of Bill Gardner's gloves and suddenly the Hawk centre's feet came flying up in an unmistakeable dive." Then the clincher.Canuck Curt Fraser's rebound goal of a Neil Belland shot was ruled offside by the linesman. "But then Bannerman viciosly swung his stick at Fraser and the ensuing melee resulted in Vancouver being the only team shorthanded. When Savard scored to make it 4-1 Neilson had seen enough", states Gallagher.
With the ensuing centre ice face-off lining up, Neilson grabbed a towel, put it on the end of a stick and hoisted it in the air. He held it their for about 40 seconds before some players joined in. Minor, Tiger Williams and Lars Molin all hoisted a towel, but amazingly referee Myers had not yet noticed the display. Lars Lindgren went over the boards to get his attention in the direction of the Vancouver bench and the ref instantly lost it. Neilson, Williams and Minor were ejected. Along with the $1000 fine to the coach, the team was fined $10,000.
Neilson was quoted;"Believe me, it wasn't anything contrived. It was a spur of the moment protest. I had seen enough and I saw the towels and I said to Jimmy Nill, gimme your stick, and that was it, I had no idea what i was starting."
Of course, they had still managed a split in Chicago Stadium and went home to take control of the series. In the process of winning 4 games to 1, Vancouver and Chicago set an NHL record for most penalty minutes in a series with 560.
The Canucks would be swept by the Islanders and over the 17 playoff games they totalled 673 PIM's as a team. Tiger Williams collected 116, CurtFraser 98, Colin Campbell 89, Jim Nill 67, Darcy Rota 54 and Harold Snepsts 50 all which project to over 240 PIM's each in an 80 game sked. It's obvious that referee Bob Myers wasn't the only one calling infractions on the cinderella Canucks that year.