Conventional wisdom holds that 16-year-old rookies don’t often make an instant impact in the Western Hockey League, arguably the toughest junior circuit on the planet.
But it took just one memorable play to convince Jake Virtanen that he could be an exception to the rule.
Last season, the right winger from Abbotsford was called up by the Calgary Hitmen for a game against the Vancouver Giants at Pacific Coliseum.
Just past the midway point of the first period, he carried the puck out of his own zone and shifted into high gear. Giants centre Cain Franson met him at the blue line, but Virtanen treated him like a pylon, weaving to the outside.
Vancouver defenceman Brett Kulak tried to cut him off along the boards at the red line, but Virtanen slipped the puck under his stick and blew by him to the inside. Then he beat another Giants D-man, Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, to the front of the net, and snapped a glove-side shot past goalie Adam Morrison.
An end-to-end rush like that requires a preposterous skill set, and the play was all the more remarkable considering the youngster was just 15 at the time, ineligible to play full-time in the WHL.
“Something like that really catches your eye,” Hitmen coach Mike Williamson told The News this week, reflecting on the goal, which made the WHL’s plays of the week.
“He’s got an incredible set of skills. His acceleration and his ability to go from almost a dead stop to full speed, and his change of gears is something you don’t see in a lot of players.”
Virtanen, who notched three goals and an assist in nine regular season games with the Hitmen last season, is perhaps the most promising 16-year-old hockey prospect Abbotsford has ever produced, befitting his status as the first overall pick in the 2011 WHL bantam draft.
A headline in the Calgary Herald last week – “Super rookie Virtanen embarks on full-time WHL duty” – captured the level of expectation he’s facing this fall.
Handling that type of pressure, along with adjusting to living away from home for the first time while juggling schoolwork and a demanding hockey schedule, is a lot to ask of a youngster. But Virtanen says it doesn’t faze him.
“I just sort of go with the flow,” he said. “I don’t really worry about that stuff. I just try to focus on my game and do the simple things right.”
Indeed, Virtanen has blunted the degree of difficulty for his rookie season in terms of schoolwork. The past two summers, while his friends were off enjoying themselves, he was in class at Yale Secondary amassing extra credits. By working ahead, he only needs to take two courses – Earth Science and Biology 11 – at St. Anne Academic Centre in Calgary this fall.
“This is my Grade 11 year, but I’m pretty much done all my Grade 11 classes,” he noted. “It was pretty tough – I didn’t get to hang out with my friends much in the summer.
“But getting prepared for the WHL was my No. 1 thing. I don’t want to be doing homework on a game day, right? I want to be focusing and getting prepared.”
Virtanen also has the good fortune of having a mini-support system in Southern Alberta. The Hitmen roster features two other forwards from Abbotsford – Joey Kornelsen, 19, and Chase Clayton, 18 – and Virtanen’s older brother Stefan plays nearby for the junior A Drumheller Dragons.
“Stefan and I are both really excited about that,” he said. “When we both have an off day, we’re going to try to hang out as much as possible.”
Virtanen, a budding power forward at 6’1″, 190 pounds, was held off the scoresheet in the Hitmen’s first two regular-season games on the weekend. But he’s determined to be a difference-maker, and his coach believes he’s capable of that.
“He has the physical abilities to play at this level and contribute right now,” Williamson said. “He just has to learn the game and keep improving.”
‘THE DUB’ SPRINKLED WITH LOCAL PROSPECTS
Virtanen is one of seven Abbotsford players to begin the season in the WHL.
• Joey Kornelsen, C, Calgary Hitmen
Kornelsen was involved in an early-season trade in 2011-12, going from the Moose Jaw Warriors to the Hitmen. Between the two teams, he registered 10 goals and 16 assists in 63 games.
• Chase Clayton, C, Calgary Hitmen
A former first-round bantam draft choice by the Hitmen (22nd overall, 2009), Clayton started to find his way offensively as a WHL sophomore in 2011-12. The speedy centre posted 12 goals and 15 assists in 57 games.
• Mackenzie Skapski, G, Kootenay Ice
After sharing the Kootenay crease with fellow Abby native Nathan Lieuwen last season, Skapski (pictured right) is expected to carry the goaltending load in Cranbrook this fall. In limited duty in 2011-12, he went 9-6-2 with a 3.12 goals against average and an .890 save percentage.
• Dalton Sward, C, Vancouver Giants
The hard-nosed forward was slowed by a separated shoulder last season, but still managed 11 goals and 11 assists in 54 games with the Giants. He was invited to Vancouver Canucks rookie camp over the summer.
• Austin Ferguson, RW, Kelowna Rockets
The gritty winger was a rookie role player with the Rockets in 2011-12, posting one goal and three assists in 56 games. He put together a strong preseason this fall, notching five points in six contests.
• Matt Revel, C, Saskatoon Blades
The rookie playmaker began this season with the junior A Chilliwack Chiefs, but the opportunity to play for the Memorial Cup host squad proved too good to pass up. He joined the Blades last week.