A couple of weeks ago, Jake Virtanen was backstage at Abbotsford’s Sevenoaks Alliance Church, waiting to accept his diploma during the Yale Secondary convocation ceremony.
Students were lined up in alphabetical order, which was how Jake found himself alongside his cousin J.J. with plenty of time to kill.
It occurred to J.J. that Jake should treat the walk across the stage as practice – on June 27, he’ll make a similar stroll at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, when a National Hockey League team calls his name in the first round of the 2014 entry draft.
It’ll be a short walk, but it’s been a long journey.
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So how does a youngster emerge from the cast of thousands who register for minor hockey each year in Canada, to the brink of NHL employment?
In Virtanen’s case, it’s tempting to simply chalk it all up to natural talent.
The 17-year-old is arguably the most physically gifted prospect in the draft: a swift-skating, hard-shooting, bull-in-a-china-shop winger who racked up 45 goals and 26 assists for 71 points in 71 regular season games with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen this past season, along with a +23 rating and 100 penalty minutes. He was similarly outstanding for Team Canada at the U18 World Championships in Finland in April, leading the team in scoring (three goals and three assists in seven games) en route to a bronze medal.
The 6’1”, 210-pounder earned the highest overall grade during on-ice testing at the Canadian major junior top prospects game in January, registering the top times in both the forward- and backward-skating sprints. And his shooting ability was said to be NHL-calibre three years ago, when the Hitmen made him the first overall pick in the WHL bantam draft.
But the first time Brad Bowen saw Virtanen on the ice, he didn’t see a prodigy. His initial impression was, in fact, more along the lines of aggravation than admiration.
Jake and J.J. were enrolled in Bowen’s learn-to-skate program at the Langley Sportsplex, and as four-year-old buddies do, they spent a good amount of time horsing around.
“I had to put him in timeouts quite a bit on the ice,” Bowen recalled with a chuckle. “He was a typical four-year-old.”
Though his attention was initially difficult to harness, young Jake had a rare ability to endure the more mundane elements of hockey training. Namely, power skating – the development of proper technique in terms of stride and posture, achieved through painstaking repetition.
“It’s something with a lot of kids where they have to have a puck on their stick . . . to be interested,” Bowen said. “But he knew the importance of skating, from the time he was literally four years old.”
Jake’s dad Rainer attributes his son’s passion for practice to his natural tendencies to seek out both competition and social interaction.
“In power skating groups, they always start off in long lines of 20 or 30 kids,” he recalled. “Because Jake was always the youngest, he would start at the back, and by the end of the rotation, he would be leading the pack because he had passed everybody.
“And he’s very social, and that was a big part of it. He wanted to get out there and be with people. He’s not a loner.”
Virtanen’s involvement with Bowen continued through spring-league hockey and summer skills camps, and later at the W.A. Fraser Middle and Yale Secondary hockey academies, of which Bowen is the director of hockey.
Rainer and mom Brigitte didn’t push Jake toward that type of year-round commitment – rather, their role was reining him in as he pursued his passion for hockey along with other sports.
“People always said to us, ‘Is he going to burn out?’” Rainer said. “And we’d always say we’re not putting him in (activities) – he’s asking.
“He had rugby, lacrosse, inline hockey and hockey, and we always said, ‘You can’t do them all. You’ve got to be committed to everything you do.’”
Jake also benefited from following in the footsteps of brother Stefan, a defenceman four years his senior. Stefan is a solid player in his own right – he played four seasons of junior A hockey and won the 2014 B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League title with Selkirk College.
“Going to his games in atom and peewee and bantam, he had a big impact on me,” Jake said. “And he’s been super-supportive of me. He’s really pumped about the draft.”
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Troy Campbell remembers vividly the first time he saw Virtanen play, back in 2009.
Campbell was head coach of the Abbotsford Hawks Tier 1 bantam team, and Virtanen was a first-year player in the 14-15 age group. The first intrasquad game was at Matsqui Rec Centre.
“He got my attention real quick,” Campbell recalled with a chuckle. “He scored four goals, and they were very good ones.
“And I’ve seen many, many highlight-reel goals from Jake since then. He’s just a pure goal-scorer, and they’re very hard to find.”
Virtanen was one of eight first-year bantam players Campbell took on a rebuilding Hawks squad in 2009-10, and the following season, Virtanen led the team to the B.C. provincial final, piling up 70 goals and 49 assists for 119 points in 62 games along the way. That prompted the Hitmen to nab him first overall in the bantam draft – the first Abbotsford player to achieve that distinction.
He’ll almost certainly make more local history next week as the highest NHL-drafted player from Abby. That designation currently belongs to Michael Funk, a defenceman who was taken in the second round (43rd overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in 2004.
Virtanen, ranked sixth among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, will surely be a first-round pick, potentially top-10, with buzz that he could go as high as No. 6 – a pick owned by the Vancouver Canucks.
“That would be amazing for me, growing up a Canuck fan,” said Virtanen, who wore No. 19 in minor hockey in honour of Markus Naslund. “It would be a dream come true.
“But I think it would be an honour to be drafted by any team. Time will tell in a couple of days.”
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The Virtanens are heading to Philadelphia on Tuesday, where Jake has follow-up meetings scheduled with the Florida Panthers (who own the first overall pick and are open to trading down) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (who pick eighth). He interviewed with both of those teams, and 22 others, at the NHL combine in Toronto in late May.
Virtanen didn’t work out at the combine – he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder on May 15, and it will be four to six months until he’s game-ready. That figures to hamper his ability to participate in an NHL training camp in September, but he’ll be available for selection for Canada’s World Junior Championship team later in the year, and he doesn’t think the procedure will impact his draft stock to a huge degree.
He’s ahead of schedule in his recovery – at this point post-surgery, most people can’t raise their arm higher than their shoulder, but Virtanen has much of his range of motion back already. His physiotherapist, he said, has called him a natural healer.
Bowen, a former New York Islanders scout who currently serves a similar role for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, pegs Virtanen as a low-risk, high-reward prospect.
“Why he’ll get drafted high is, as an NHL scout, I can project him to be a top-six forward,” Bowen explained. “The good thing about it is, if he fails as a top-six forward, he can easily play on a team’s third or fourth line because of his size and skating ability. . . . So your draft is not a bust.
“His key is going to be whether or not he continues to work hard through (age) 18 to 21. Which, knowing the family and knowing the kid, I can’t see him not doing that.”
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Virtanen is about as level-headed as one could hope to be heading into the draft.
Responding to the chief criticism of his game – that his hockey sense doesn’t measure up to his physical gifts – he says he made huge strides in terms of his play without the puck this past season, and that “there’s always room to improve, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
He was impressed, but not intimidated, at meeting high-profile NHL executives like Trevor Linden (Canucks), Brendan Shanahan (Maple Leafs) and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay Lightning) at the combine.
And looking ahead to signing his first contract, the only thing he’s thinking about buying is a truck, probably a Ford F-150. His parents, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, have encouraged him to look at a used model, and to that end he’s been scouring Craigslist.
“I’m simple – I don’t want anything too flashy,” he said, adding that it hasn’t completely sunk in that the draft is just a week away.
“I feel like I’m just waking up like a normal kid every day. It’s weird. I’m just trying to soak it in.”
Action photos courtesy Clint Trahan / Calgary Hitmen