- BC Games
INSTANT REPLAY: The real story behind the White Towel
You wouldn’t think a towel would end up as the iconic symbol of Vancouver Canucks’ playoff frenzy every year. Or that others (gasp, even the L.A. Kings) would copy our innovative Towel Power.
But as much as it was a spur-of-the-moment decision by coach Roger Neilson to hoist a towel on the end of a stick in Chicago on April 29, 1982, during Game 2 of the Western Conference final, it was actually Butts Giraud whose ingenuity and quick-thinking 30 years ago that has made the White Towel and Towel Power the symbol of Canucks’ fan support for three decades.
Giraud, who grew up in West Van, has done many things in his life; none of them ordinary.
He played football at the University of Florida (1965) and Western Washington (1967-69), then in the CFL with B.C. Lions (1970 preseason) before being traded to Winnipeg.
When the world belly-flop championships were held at the Bayshore Inn and the Coach House (now Holiday Inn), Butts was victorious four times between 1975-80. For a 10-year period he was a professional wrestler here and in England. Today he plays the harmonica with abandon in churches and restaurants from Hornby Island to Hawaii. No, Butts is not your ordinary guy.
In 1974, he founded the Dog’s Ear T-Shirt Co. which has franchises around B.C. including West Van. The name comes from the Mad Dog nickname he got during his Lions days and the false report that he once bit off the ear of a wrestling opponent.
These are all stories in themselves but this week let’s find out how Butts turned Neilson’s towel tirade into a Canucks’ tradition.
When the Canucks went past the first round of the playoffs in 1982 after five futile previous efforts, Giraud and business associates Eric Natovitch and Steve Ordel were looking for a way to get on the Canuck bandwagon. Little did they know, they would be leading it.
“This moment of the towel intrigued the three of us,” Butts explains in the draft of a book he’s slowly putting together about his various escapades. “We sensed an opportunity rising. Mesmerizing events and situations like this are rare indeed. That night, Roger Neilson gave us the foundation for this idea and we were prepared to accept the challenge of making it work. We knew in order to make an immediate impact we had to be creative and move quickly. It’s not the great ideas that count; it’s acting on them.
“I don’t think I slept a wink that night as my mind raced back and forth… I started to see what might unfold… This could be the promotion of a lifetime… The ideas started to come fast and furious… We were on to something huge…”
Butts remembers TOWEL POWER being written in big letters on the drawing board at the next morning’s staff meeting. “But what could we put on that towel?” he asks rhetorically. “We didn’t have time to negotiate the licensing rights to the Canucks logo, so it had to be something generic.
“Since CKNW did all the radio play-by-play broadcasts for the Canucks, it reasoned to be a natural organization to involve. If we could co-ordinate the promotion with Frosty Forst during the morning show and the drive-home show with Rick Honey, all corners of the day would be covered. The publicity would be electrifying!
“I had no idea where to purchase white towels. Buttons, pennants, caps, and t-shirts were no problem, but towels? Bingo! My first contact [a hotel supply company] had what I wanted – and at a price that couldn’t be beat – and best of all they had thousands of towels in stock, and at an office only 15 minutes away from mine.
“In a matter of hours, we had 5,000 towels sitting on our warehouse floor ready for printing. Mana Rawal, who still lives in West Van, completed the final artwork for our first run: CANUCKS TAKE NO SURVIVORS. Game 3 on May 1 and Game 4 would be on home ice at the Pacific Coliseum.
“I met with NW in the early afternoon and by the time Rick Honey went on air, we had more than 1,000 towels in our stores… By 6 pm we were all sold out!
“The excitement became exhilarating as the follow-up media frenzy kept my phone ringing. Every radio and TV station across the province wanted in on the story. The publicity extended from coast to coast across both Canada and the United States.
“As part of our strategy, we wanted to sell towels on the sidewalk on city property outside the Coliseum. Acting as street vendors, we had to worry about the legalities. The Canucks, who were not as yet part of our team, had no warning of this plan, so we took a huge risk. Without the Canucks’ co-operation, we could be run off PNE property in a matter of seconds and stuck with thousands of printed towels ready for sale in a no-sale zone!...
“At 5 o’clock on May 1, the sidewalk outside the arena buzzed with action. Our first van arrived on the scene with towels hot off the press and still smelling of fresh ink... What happened next was simply unbelievable. We literally had a stampede on our hands before we had even opened the first box. As fast as people threw $5 bills our way, we retrieved the towels out of the boxes... It was one box after another as 10 of us, including my good friends John McKenzie and Tony Wilson, my brother Byron and all my staff, jammed money into their pockets to try to keep up… In an hour and a half we sold 5,000 towels – our entire inventory – and most importantly we hadn’t been shut down by the police…
“Inside the Pacific Coliseum that night, the stands were a sea of white – 16,413 pumped-up fans, many of them waving white towels, screaming hysterically at the top of their lungs. It was an extraordinary sight to behold.
“Our new slogan for the next game was CANUCKS SHOW NO MERCY. It was our strategy and desire to produce a new collectors’ item towel for every home and away game.
“Once again, we couldn’t open boxes fast enough. By 6:30 pm, we sold out another 8,000 towels. The Canucks franchise had never witnessed such a spectacle. As the words of the Canadian anthem rang out from centre ice, the roar of the crowd increased and the sea of waving white towels made for a magical sports moment. I again stared at the scene in wonder, overwhelmed by emotion, excitement, and total exhaustion.”
The Canucks did not disappoint, beating the Blackhawks in both home games and finishing them off back in Chicago, to reach the Stanley Cup final versus New York Islanders. Though NY swept the Canucks in four games, Towel Power was here to stay.
“The spring of 1982,” sums up Butts, “was a manic, magical ride for British Columbians and certainly an invigorating ride for the Dog’s Ear.”
In a two-week period, The Dog’s Ear sold over 50,000 towels, donated $23,000 to the NW Orphans’ Fund and birthed a tradition that shows no signs of dying out.
This is episode 459 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.