Injuries are a part of hockey. But after seeing Vancouver Canucks‘ 2014 first-round pick Jake Virtanen launch an unsuspecting opponent over the boards in his third game back, it appears his shoulder is just fine.
This past May, Virtanen had surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum. He recently returned to the Calgary Hitmen lineup on Oct. 24th, helping the team to a 9-2 win against the Kootenay Ice.
“When everyone got in the dressing room, the boys were pretty fired up about it,” Virtanen said in regards to his hit that sent Tate Olson of the Prince George Cougars into the Hitmen’s bench.
“I didn’t intentionally try to hit him over the boards, but it happened,” Virtanen said. “Taking the body is definitely part of my game, so I hit him and it turned into a pretty cool hit.”
Hits like this one have helped remove any nervousness the 18-year-old left winger has about his shoulder when going into the corners or lining up another big hit.
“Yeah, I think that hit really secured my confidence in my shoulder; just in knowing that I can go in and make a big hit as well as take them.”
Another source for Virtanen’s confidence likely stems from the summer he’s had in and around the Canucks’ organization – a team that he was honored to have call his name at the 2014 NHL Draft.
“Growing up a Vancouver Canucks fan and being from Abbotsford, it was definitely a dream come true,” said Virtanen.
Two of the more notable players he had the chance to speak with in training camp were none other then Daniel and Henrik Sedin – players Virtanen has been looking up to since he was a kid.
“I got to talk to them pretty frequently because we were either on the ice together or just around the team,” Virtanen said. “They’re really good guys and they’ve got great senses of humor. They’re really friendly and make jokes with all the young guys.”
And after being around an organization like the Canucks all summer long, Virtanen has a few goals he’d like to accomplish with the Calgary Hitmen this season.
“Individually, I’m not trying to set goals in terms of goals and assists, but my main goal is to contribute to the team, both on and off the ice,” Virtanen said. “From the gym, to the dressing room, to on the ice, I think I’ll definitely be a big leader on this team, so I’m going to try and do that for sure. Overall, I’m just going to try and be a guy that the guys on the team can rely on and that the coaches can look to if we’re in key situations.”
That maturity in Virtanen’s game, both on and off the ice, is something that linemate Connor Rankin has taken note of this season.
“I think he’s matured a lot,” Rankin said. “After being around the World Junior players and the Vancouver Canucks players, he’s picked up his game and taken it to the next level.”
Rankin also added that Virtanen will be a key player for the Hitmen this season and that he’ll be counted on to score for them.
“He’s such an amazing and gifted player on the ice, and off the ice he’s a great guy to be around.”
First-year head coach Mark French echoed Rankin’s comments on Virtanen being a likable player in the Hitmen locker room, adding that there was a sense of excitement around the team leading up to his return to the lineup.
“I think everyone had a genuine sense of excitement for him to get back into the lineup,” French said. “I was pretty proud of him to be able to get through the three games in three nights after such a long layoff.”
Having only seen videos of Virtanen at game speed, his ability to accelerate away from opposing players was one thing that caught French a little off guard.
“Early in the Kootenay game he had a breakaway, and I think it was just the separation he was able to gain from the defenseman in a very small area that was what stuck me,” French said. “You see him on video a little bit and you see he has some dynamic qualities to his game, but to see it live, I was taken a little aback of it.”
After coaching in the AHL and KHL, French feels for Virtanen to make it at the next level, consistency is what will be key for him.
“He’s got some real nice, God-given talent and it’s going to be finding out how his game fits into the team structure,” said the Hitmen’s head coach. “But with his willingness and with the type of person he is, I don’t think that will be a problem.”
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