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Why did Queen Elizabeth II drop the puck at a Canucks game?

The Queen dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoff in 2002 between Markus Naslund and Mike Ricci, who took the place of the absent Owen Nolan.
Queen Elizabeth II walks on the ice at GM Place with Wayne Gretzky to drop the puck for a ceremonial faceoff for a game between the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks on October 6, 2002

No, Queen Elizabeth II didn’t moonlight as an NHL linesman, but she did drop the puck for one NHL faceoff.

The date was October 6, 2002 and the Queen was touring the Commonwealth for her Golden Jubilee — the celebration of her 50th year as monarch. Canada was the final stop on her royal tour and it included a tip of the crown to Canada’s national winter sport, hockey.

The extremely ceremonial faceoff

The San Jose Sharks were in town for a preseason game against the Vancouver Canucks — in retrospect, a rather unimportant game for a royal visit — and the event was arranged to further endear the Queen to her Canadian subjects. While many of the Canucks players were excited about the Queen's visit, others were less enthused.

“I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean anything, but I think it’s a distraction,” said Canucks winger Trent Klatt.

The disapproval of Trent Klatt wasn’t enough to cancel the event. With extensive security measures and plenty of pomp and circumstance, the 76-year-old Queen Elizabeth II strode onto the ice surface at GM Place.

She was accompanied by hockey royalty, as Wayne Gretzky escorted her down the red carpet. Behind her were two gold medalists from the 2002 Winter Olympics in their Team Canada jerseys, Cassie Campbell and the Canucks’ Ed Jovanovski. 

Markus Naslund took the ceremonial faceoff as captain of the Canucks but the player opposite of Naslund was not the Sharks’ captain, Owen Nolan. Instead, Mike Ricci, with his normally wild and greasy hair carefully combed and tucked into the back of his jersey and his false teeth covering his gap-toothed smile, stood in for Nolan, who didn’t make the trip to Vancouver.

Why wasn’t Owen Nolan there?

Owen Nolan’s absence raised some eyebrows, as Nolan was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and still had extended family there. It was thought that Nolan’s absence from the game might be a statement in support of Irish republicanism, holding that British rule of Ireland is illegitimate.

At the very least, it seemed likely that Nolan might not want his photo with the Queen plastered across newspapers around the world. That might not have gone over well with some of the members of his family.

The Sharks, however, said it wasn’t anything political at all. One report said that Nolan was resting a “bad back,” even though he had just played the previous night with no issue. Another report called it a “coach’s decision.”

“It’s certainly not an issue of meeting her or being involved with the Queen, It’s just more of a hockey issue,” said Sharks spokesman Scott Emmert to The Province. “There certainly is no underlying political factors to the decision.”


A 2002 report from Leo Knight in the North Shore News suggested it was exactly what it seemed. 

"A friend of mine involved with the security of the Royal visit suggested this has little to do with a 'bad back,'" said Knight. "In fact, I'm told that Nolan simply refused to take part in any ceremony with the monarch of a country that has held his homeland in 'chains' for 800 years."

A hockey puck in the Royal Archives

Naslund “won” the ceremonial faceoff, tapping the puck back to himself before handing it to the Queen, with assurances that yes, she could keep the puck. The puck, signed by Campbell, Jovanovski, Gretzky, and Howie Meeker — who played in the first NHL game the Queen watched 51 years earlier  — made its way into the Royal Archives.

Just to reiterate, a hockey puck with Ed Jovanovski’s signature is in the Royal Archives.

Jovanovski actually played in the game, quickly changing out of his Team Canada jersey and dress pants and donning his hockey gear and Canucks jersey. In fact, he scored the first goal of the game on an assist by Naslund, which reportedly delighted the Queen, who was astonished that he had gotten on the ice so quickly.

Howie Meeker was on hand because of a request from the Queen. She was hoping that someone who played in the first game she watched, a one-period exhibition between the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, could be at the game. She had attended that game in October, 1951 when she was still a Princess, then later that month attended a full game between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.

Like her first taste of NHL hockey, the Queen only saw one period of the Canucks and Sharks. Alongside Gretzky and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell in a royal box, the Queen and Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, took in the first period before they made their exit in the first intermission. The royal couple missed out on a 3-2 Canucks win.

“I have no doubt, Your Majesty, that will inspire our Canucks to win their first-ever Stanley Cup,” said Gordon Campbell after she dropped the puck. Despite the best season of Naslund’s career, the Canucks lost in seven games to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Semifinals.

@bcisawesome Royal puck drop. #bchistorywithbobk #queenelizabeth ♬ original sound - BC Is Awesome