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Trevor Linden, a rookie from Medicine Hat, is just the tonic the Canucks required

Trevor Linden is not the wunderkind he has been made out to be. Truth be told, the Vancouver Canucks" 18-year-old center has considerable difficulty in heavy traffic. While cruising down Hastings Street in Vancouver the other day at the height of the lunch-hour rush. Linden stalled his 1965 Mustang notch-back coupe. Shouting to be heard over a cacophony of horns, he said to a passenger, "Sometimes she takes a little while to get warmed up."

The same cannot be said of Linden's career. It's no coincidence that in this, his first NHL season, Vancouver has a chance to have its first winning season since 1975-76. At week's end Linden had scored two hat tricks and 10 power-play goals, and his 57 points placed him second on the Canucks in scoring. If the motorists behind Linden had known whom they were honking at, they would probably have been asking for autographs instead.

Mere statistics, however, are a feeble yardstick of Linden's abilities. He can play every position but goaltender. At 6'4", 200 pounds, he is as comfortable mucking in corners—the NHL's trenches—as he is tinkering under the hood of his vintage Mustang. He dumps the puck in deep and goes in and digs it out. "We knew he was a good cornerman and a good defensive player," says Vancouver coach Bob McCammon. "But we didn't know he'd give us so much offensively." And will be able to for so long—just think, in a couple of years Linden will be legal to go out with his teammates for a postgame beer anywhere the NHL plays. He's the youngest player in the league and won't turn 19 until April 11.

On Feb. 10, with centers Greg Adams and Barry Pederson injured. Linden, a natural right wing, was pressed into service as a center. That night the Canucks beat Buffalo 5-4, with Linden scoring one goal and setting up another. Adams and Pederson are out for the rest of the regular season, so Linden has become a fixture at center. As of Sunday, the playoff-bound Canucks were 12-7-1 since Linden made the switch, and they had improved their overall record to 31-33-8.

Vancouver media relations director Darcy Rota has been feverishly promoting Linden for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the league's Rookie of the Year. Three weeks ago Rota sent a five-minute Linden highlight video to a number of television stations and was considerate enough to also send the tape to a group of hockey writers who just happen to have a Calder vote.

Vancouver's improvement is not exclusively attributable to Linden. McCammon has coached heroically to wring those 74 points from this hardworking but not overly talented squad. Defenseman Paul Reinhart, a 1988 cast-off of the Calgary Flames, has given the Canucks an offensive threat on the blue line. Goalies Kirk McClean and Steve Weeks, who between them have yielded only 2.47 goals per game since the All-Star break, are two of the NHL's more underrated netminders.

But Linden has been the surprise of Vancouver's season—except to those who had seen him play beforehand. He led the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League to the last two Memorial Cup championships, and the Tigers general manager at the time, Russ Farwell, predicted before last year's NHL draft that Linden would be a team captain in the league within five years. "I don't see how he can miss," says Farwell, now general manager of the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds. "He's got the work ethic of a Bobby Clarke, but I think he may be more talented than Bobby was."

Last June, shortly before the draft, the Canucks invited Linden to visit Vancouver for a weekend, to meet the press and explore the city. Linden had to beg off. "Could you make it any other weekend?" he asked. "We're branding this weekend."

The Linden family does some ranching and farming on a 2,000-acre tract 23 miles from Medicine Hat. At branding time, Trevor's father. Lane, does the ear-tagging. His mother, Edna—"We all just call her Ed," says Lane—inoculates the calves. "Grandpa handles the branding iron," says Trevor, "and my brothers and I wrestle them down. We do the hard part. I love it." Linden can make a 14-hour day of body-slamming bovines sound like a bit of brisk fun.

In addition to farming and ranching. Lane runs a modest gravel-hauling company in Medicine Hat. The outfit is prospering now. but on several occasions in the 1970s, Lane had to fight off bankruptcy. "He did it by sheer hard work," says Trevor. "That's probably the biggest thing he taught me."

That he had learned this lesson was never more evident than last summer, as Linden prepared for his first NHL season. The second player chosen in the draft, after center Mike Modano of the Minnesota North Stars, Linden feared he might come up short of expectations. "I didn't want to disappoint," he says. "If I was going to fail, it wasn't going to be because I wasn't in shape."

He left nothing to chance. Linden imposed an 11 p.m. week night curfew on himself. Each morning he either ran six or seven miles or rode 30 miles on his 12-speed. In the afternoons he lifted weights, and in the evenings he swam laps. Linden was also concerned about his weight: He had melted down to an Ichabod Crane-like 179 pounds at the end of last season. On the advice of a nutritionist, he packed away 6,000 calories a day to get back up to 200 pounds. As the season approached, he replaced the distance running with sprints and began skating with the Tigers.

When it came time to report to the Canucks' training camp in September, Linden's agent, Don Meehan, had not hammered out a contract with the team. To most high draft picks, this means one thing: holdout. But Linden wasn't about to sit out, contract or no. "My goal had always been to play in the NHL," he says, "not to own three houses or six fancy cars." He signed a reported four-year. $700,000 contract at the end of training camp.

Linden rooms with 34-year-old Harold Snepsts, the venerable defenseman, whom he has not ceased to amaze. "Usually with a rookie, you're waiting for some sign of maturity," says Snepsts. "With Trev, you wait and wait for him to show some sign that he's still only a kid."

Well, he's not completely grown up. Said Linden after his first trip to New York City, "It was so big! And all the cabs! Thousands and thousands of cabs !"

When it comes to his game-day routine. Linden is as inflexible as the crustiest veteran. He gets to the rink about 4:00. He tapes his sticks and sits in the players lounge and watches games on the satellite from out east. During these hours. Linden indulges his only known vice: "I like to drink about five or six cups of coffee once I get to the rink." In light of this, the question arises: Are two intermissions enough?

Despite Rota's efforts. Linden suspects that he is the underdog for the Calder Trophy. Brian Leetch, the New York Ranger rookie defenseman, is the top scorer among NHL rookies, with 68 points, and he plays in the league's highest-profile city. But Linden is more inclined to talk about the approaching playoffs, anyway. "I don't really give it [the Calder] that much thought." he says.

A noble sentiment. Master Linden. Just don't let Rota hear you say it.



Writers can interview Linden or see him on tape.



Linden (16) is versatile enough to play any position except goalie.



Linden, Vancouver's second-leading scorer, is also a willing and able man in the corner.