VANCOUVER – One of the most popular players to ever suit up for the Vancouver Canucks has died.
Wayne “Gino” Odjick, who played 12 seasons in the NHL for the Canucks, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, died at the age of 52.
Gino’s sister Dina Odjick shared the news Sunday on Facebook of his passing.
“Our hearts are broken. My brother Gino Odjick has left us for the spirit world,” she wrote.
Odjick spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Canucks after being selected by them in the 1990 entry draft, before being traded to the New York Islanders for Jason Strudwick in March 1998.
In 2014, Odjick was diagnosed with Amyloidosis – a disease he says attacked his organs and his heart.
The former enforcer had 64 goals and 73 assists in 605 NHL games. Odjick was a key member of the 1994 Canucks Stanley Cup finalist team, playing 10 games in the playoffs for the team that lost a physical seven-game series to the New York Rangers.
Odjick also did a lot of community work.
He holds a Canucks team record, with his 2,127 penalty minutes being the most in franchise history.
“Gino was a fan favourite from the moment he joined the organization, putting his heart and soul into every shift on and off the ice,” said Francesco Aquilini, the Canucks’ chairman and governor.
“He inspired many and embodied what it means to be a Canuck. Personally, he was a close friend and confidant, someone I could lean on for advice and support. He will be deeply missed.”
Stan Smyl, the Canucks’ vice-president of hockey operations and former teammate of Odjick, described his friend as passionate, kind and funny, a joker who could lighten the room and still fill a tough role.
“He was a friend to me, and you – he was a very special individual,” Smyl said Sunday. “The role that he had as a player was the toughest role to play in hockey and he handled it well. He was one of the greatest teammates I ever played with.”
Smyl added that Odjick protected the team’s stars, fought or stirred things up when necessary, and was never intimidated by the other NHL enforcers.
“His heart was in the middle of everything he did, all the time. That was Gino.”
Odjick was diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a rare terminal illness that causes a gelatin-like protein to be deposited in the heart muscle, affecting the organ’s ability to expand and contract.
Odjick wrote an open letter to Canucks fans after his initial diagnosis saying he initially thought he would have a few years to live, but added that doctors informed him he could only have months, or even weeks.
The Maniwaki, Que., was one of the most feared fighters of his era.
As an Aboriginal Canadian, Odjick was seen by many in the First Nations community as someone to look up to, and his hometown of Maniwaki renamed its arena in his honour in the summer of 2014.
Drafted by Vancouver in the fifth round (86th overall) of the 1990 NHL draft, Odjick became close friends with sniper Pavel Bure during their playing days with the Canucks and was on hand at Rogers Arena for the Russian Rocket’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2013.
Odjick also attended the 2014 ceremony that added former Canucks head coach and general manager Pat Quinn to the club’s Ring of Honour. He said in his letter to fans he learned of his diagnosis a few days later.
“I feel very fortunate for the support I’ve received over the years,” Odjick wrote. “During my career I played in some great NHL cities including Vancouver, Long Island, Philadelphia and Montreal.
“In my heart, I will always be a Canuck and I have always had a special relationship here with the fans.”
Experts say the heart condition Odjick suffered from is extremely rare, has no known cause and is almost always fatal.
Betty Cahoose, health director of the Ulkatcho Indian Band in Anahim Lake, B.C., said the isolated community had sought Odjick as a motivational speaker, especially for its youth.
“A lot of our people went to the residential school and he knows the struggles in our communities with drugs and alcohol so he was wanting to touch on that too, just basically from his own experience, what he had to endure to get where he was at with professional hockey,” Cahoose said.
“He really had a heart for the First Nations community. But unfortunately, he didn’t make it to our community. All of a sudden we didn’t hear from him.”
Cahoose said Montreal goalie Carey Price has also been an inspiration in Anahim Lake, where he was raised, and where he has opened breakfast programs at two schools as part of a Breakfast Club of Canada initiative.
Odjick – who Price has said was one of his role models – was known for inspiring youth to pursue education as a way out of poverty, and Cahoose said she wishes he too could have visited the young people in Anahim Lake.
“When someone like that, a professional hockey player, comes into our community, I think it really hits home to the kids,” she said. “Not only are they interested in being motivated into being a pro hockey player but in Gino talking about his experiences in getting through the challenges of becoming a professional hockey player and the challenges he knows that our First Nation faces. And they can overcome those barriers, like with drugs and alcohol and that anything’s possible regardless of the road you went down.”
Cahoose said she saw the former tough guy’s soft side first-hand when she met him at Vancouver’s airport about three years ago while she was waiting for a flight home and he was heading to a northern B.C. community to give a motivational talk.
“There were three or four of us sitting there and a kid came up and said, ‘Do you know who that guy is?’ I said, ‘Odjick?’ He said, ‘Yeah!”’
Several kids walked up to Odjick and guided him back to where they were waiting for their flight, Cahoose said.
“He took the time to sit down with us and talk to us, and that was really cool. It was so exciting because we were sitting with Gino.”
Cahoose was among the throngs of Odjick’s fans who watched their hero play with the Vancouver Canucks, his fighting spirit making him a standout for eight seasons.
“I always remembered him as being the tough one on the team,” she said. “It was very exciting and we were very proud because he was First Nations.”