VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - Dan Hamhuis still recalls the pit in his 11-year-old stomach when the Vancouver Canucks fell one victory short of the Stanley Cup in 1994.
Hamhuis was obsessed with the Canucks while was growing up in Smithers, a small town about 700 miles northwest of Vancouver in the British Columbia wilds. A grandson of Dutch postwar immigrants, he delighted in impersonating star forward Trevor Linden and goalie Kirk McLean while playing pond hockey.
So what if the Canucks had never won a championship - and still haven't? So what if they were better known for hideous jerseys than beautiful play?
"It was my team, so it didn't really matter a whole lot," Hamhuis said. "I was crushed when they didn't win the Stanley Cup in '94, but I was still a fan. To the north, to the small towns up there, I still go there every year, and I know how much the Canucks mean to everybody. They've been behind us for a long time."
Hamhuis is now a defenseman on perhaps the best Vancouver team ever assembled. The Canucks dominated the NHL regular season with 54 wins and 117 points before mostly rolling through the West playoffs.
They're favored to win the Stanley Cup finals, which begin Wednesday night against the Boston Bruins in the same rink where Canada won Olympic gold a year ago. Hamhuis believes every hamlet in British Columbia is behind this creative, sophisticated team with international flair and resplendent green-and-blue sweaters.
The Canucks also realize they aren't Canada's Team - and that's just fine with them.
Whenever a Canadian team reaches the Cup finals, the entire nation traditionally jumps on its bandwagon. According to the old logic, the nation that invented hockey just wants the Cup back, no matter which team ends a drought currently standing at 18 years.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper endorsed the concept when Vancouver became the only Canadian team left in the playoffs after Boston knocked out Montreal. But it's tough to get Canadians behind the Canucks - or anything from Vancouver, which has a pleasant climate and remote location that sets it apart from the rest of the Great White North.
"I don't know if that applies to us, but I do know our fans are really into us," said Raffi Torres, the hard-nosed forechecker who experienced that Canada's Team love when he played for Edmonton during its 2006 run to an agonizing Game 7 loss in the Cup finals.
"It's different in Vancouver from the rest of Canada, but you still can't go anywhere in this city without knowing what's going on, without people talking about it," Torres added. "It's a great hockey town."
The Edmonton Sun decided earlier this month that the Canucks aren't Canada's Team, with a majority of its readers saying they'll root against Vancouver. A Vancouver Sun writer jumped into the fray with a column headlined: "Dear rest of Canada: please get your own hockey team."
They might not be Canada's Team, but the Canucks are a remarkable reflection of their distinctively un-Canadian hometown.
The Canucks' three best skaters are two identical Swedes and an American who once said he hated Team Canada, while their goalie is Quebecois to the core. Their fan base draws from Vancouver's sizable Asian population as much as the rural province, and the team representing Canada's self-proclaimed cultural capital also draws celebrity fans including singers Michael Buble and Neko Case, director Jason Reitman, bombshell Pam Anderson and Steve Nash, Canada's two-time NBA MVP and world citizen.
And when the Canucks are on their game, they inspire envy with every stride. Vancouver led the NHL in scoring during the regular season with 262 goals, many originating on the preternaturally talented sticks of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, yet the Canucks also allowed a league-low 185 goals with a cadre of eight solid defensemen in front of Roberto Luongo.
"We've got a lot of talent, a lot of guys who can do different things for us," said Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks' German defenseman. "It doesn't mean anything if you don't use it, but we're definitely eager to get started."
Vancouver fans partied in the streets after the Canucks held off the defending champion Blackhawks in Game 7 of the first round, but the mood fizzled in the second round. A dismaying number of lower-bowl fans simply went home during a double-overtime game against Nashville, and the Vancouver players noticed.
But the Canucks' 8-3 blaze through the last two rounds has captured Vancouver's attention again. An estimated 20,000 people congregated downtown when Vancouver ran the San Jose Sharks out of the Western Conference finals last week, and the police have budgeted an extra $500,000 for the Cup finals, hoping to avoid the ugly riot that followed the 1994 loss in New York.
Vancouver's sometimes-tentative embrace of the Canucks reflects a vibe familiar to American sports fans who see thousands of late-arriving Lakers supporters or half-empty Oakland Raiders games. West Coast fans, so the feeling goes on both sides of the border, just aren't consumed by sports.
The Canucks' fans usually don't wave as many Canadian flags as their counterparts in Calgary or Ottawa, but anybody who attended the gold-medal win over the U.S. team at Rogers Arena knows Vancouver supports Canada - even if Canada doesn't always support Vancouver.
"We're playing for each other and our fans," Torres said. "That's all you need to do."