Pondering what impresses him most about Sven Baertschi, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward waxes eloquent about the rare joy with which the rookie phenom approaches the game.
Then he casually compares Baertschi to an NHL legend.
“It reminds me of a guy I had in Pittsburgh a long time ago,” said Ward, who was an assistant coach with the Penguins from 1997 to 2000.
“(Jaromir) Jagr was the same way. He loved to compete, he loved to get out there every day. His personality wasn’t too high and it wasn’t too low. That’s what makes people special – their consistency.
“This kid (Baertschi) smiles, this kid competes, he just enjoys the game a lot. That’s what stands out about Sven, and that’s probably why he plays so well most of the time.”
Baertschi, upon hearing about Ward’s name-drop of Jagr, said it was “special” to be mentioned in the same breath with the future Hall of Famer.
“I’ve always looked up to those type of guys, and he’s so fun to watch,” he said with a grin.
“You should have fun (playing hockey) . . . You just play a sport and make money at that – and a lot more than other people do in their normal work day. You better enjoy it, or if you don’t, I don’t know where the problem is. You go out there and play, and you’re on the ice, and not many people can say that.”
That happy-go-lucky mentality has somewhat insulated Baertschi from the disappointment of the NHL lockout, which cost him a chance to crack the Calgary Flames’ roster this fall.
The precocious 19-year-old winger from Langenthal, Switzerland served notice last season he was ready for full-time NHL duty. He lit up the Western Hockey League to the tune of two points per game (33 goals and 61 assists in 47 games) with the Portland Winterhawks, and during an emergency recall to Calgary in March, he scored three goals in five games.
Baertschi will sharpen his skills in Abbotsford for as long as the lockout persists, and while it’s not the NHL, he’s focused on making the most of the opportunity.
“For sure, it was a little disappointing,” he said, reflecting on the lockout. “But there’s not much you can do. After they said there’s not a chance there’s going to be an (NHL) training camp, I was really looking forward to coming here to Abbotsford and making sure we get the season started here. I’m happy to have a place to play here, so I can’t complain.
“It’s great to have a job that you love. For me, it’s just a perfect world right now.”
Baertschi put on 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season, which should serve him well as he embarks on his first full year of pro hockey. He said the weight gain wasn’t necessarily due to his weight-room routine, though.
“I had some really good workouts and everything, but this summer was actually the first summer I’ve been able to gain some weight,” he said. “I did the same things the summers before, but it’s just my body – it’s getting stronger now.
“It was good to get some weight, but you’ve got to do the other stuff too. You’ve got to make sure you’re still quick.”
Part of the adjustment from junior to pro hockey is simply learning to play against bigger players. The rugged play notwithstanding, Baertschi has still found room to display his elite shot and stick-handling during Heat training camp.
“I’ve taken a couple hits during practices, but I’m used to it,” he said. “In the Western Hockey League, it’s still physical there too, but I didn’t have guys 220 pounds out there. I definitely have to get used to the game.
“I’m still trying to improve every single day.”
And he’ll have fun doing it.