Jake Virtanen got his first Vancouver Canucks jersey when he was four years old, a gift from his Aunty Kathy.
The 17-year-old from Abbotsford got a brand new one on Friday evening, handed to him on the stage at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center by Canucks assistant general manger Laurence Gilman after Vancouver made him the sixth overall pick in the NHL entry draft.
What a moment for a young man who grew up cheering for the Canucks and wore No. 19 during his minor hockey days in honour of Vancouver great Markus Naslund.
“It’s an amazing honour,” Virtanen enthused in an interview with TSN. “It’s surreal for me right now. I’m still trying to soak it in. It’s amazing. I can’t wait, and I know Vancouver’s a great organization.
“I’m going to come to Vancouver and try to be a complete player. Obviously I still have things to improve on like any other player, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Virtanen, a talented 6’1″, 210-pound power forward who racked up 45 goals and 26 assists for 71 points in 71 games with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League last season, is the first B.C.-born first-rounder taken by the Canucks since Cam Neely in 1983.
He also becomes the highest NHL-drafted player in the history of the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association. That distinction had previously belonged to Michael Funk, a defenceman who was taken in the second round (43rd overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in 2004.
Virtanen had a 17-person contingent with him at the draft, including parents Rainer and Brigitte, older brother Stefan, extended family, friends, and his billet family from Calgary.
When Canucks general manager Jim Benning stepped to the podium and said, “We select, from the WHL Calgary Hitmen…” the Virtanens were floored.
“We were overwhelmed and very excited,” Brigitte said. “It’s kind of like a dream come true for a kid who grows up in the Lower Mainland.
“As a B.C. kid, you buy your son a Canucks jersey when he’s little . . . with his name on it. And now it’s real.”
Being a local player in the Canucks organization will surely come with an extra layer of scrutiny for Virtanen, but his mom believes he’s well-equipped to handle it.
“He’s pretty good at handling that type of attention,” she said. “When he was drafted by Calgary (first overall in the 2011 WHL bantam draft), he kind of took it all in stride. He’ll work very hard.
“I’m sure there will be pressure, but that’s OK. He’s just really proud to be selected by his hometown team.”
Drafting Virtanen was part of a phenomenally busy day for Benning – he traded away Ryan Kesler (to the Anaheim Ducks) and Jason Garrison (to the Tampa Bay Lightning), and also acquired forward Derek Dorsett from the New York Rangers.
Sixth overall is the highest the Canucks have drafted since picking Daniel and Henrik Sedin second and third overall, respectively, in 1999, and Benning told TSN he was enamoured with Virtanen’s skill set.
“He’s got that meanness, the ruggedness, he’s a powerful skater, he’s got a good shot,” he said. “We’re trying to change the culture of our team a little bit, and I think he’s just another piece to that puzzle.
“We feel like we got a real good player.”
Virtanen underwent surgery in mid-May to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and the recovery time is estimated at four to six months. He told The News last week that he’s ahead of schedule, but doesn’t want to rush back just to get in on training camp in September – he wants to make sure he’s 100 per cent and doesn’t re-injure the joint.
Virtanen has represented Canada on two occasions in the past two years – he helped them to the gold medal at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka U18 Tournament in 2013, and led Team Canada in scoring with three goals and three assists at the World U18 Championships in April in Finland, where they won bronze.