Humble Horvat making case for first round status

By Jason Menard

Bo Horvat - London Knights

Photo: 2013 NHL Draft prospect Bo Horvat (#53) of the OHL's London Knights is off to a productive start in the 2012-13 season (courtesy of CHL Images)

Bo knows winning. And with a Memorial Cup run and an international gold medal under his belt already at only 17, the London Knights’ Bo Horvat is poised to add a few more trophies to his mantle — along with a first-round NHL draft designation — by June.

But don’t expect Horvat to revel in that spotlight. The 17-year-old Rodney, ON native is humble to a fault, and when he ‘says the right thing’ you know he’s sincere.

“The Ivan Hlinka Tournament obviously helped me a lot just by letting me get on the ice before coming into the OHL season,” Horvat said. “I know that I’m going to have a lot bigger role this year and I just want to do the best I can and help the team win.”

And winning is something he’s grown accustomed to. In August, Horvat won gold with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament in Finland. On that squad, he was an assistant captain. He preceded that with being given the captaincy of Team Ontario over the Christmas holidays last year at the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, where he led the squad to a bronze-medal performance.

“The Ivan Hlinka Tournament was a great experience. You get to see all the talent in my age group — the 95's — and how you stack up against them,” Horvat explained. “It was a great honor to be named captain of Team Ontario and assistant captain of Team Canada at the Hlinka — it was a great learning experience and a big learning curve for me and I’m trying to carry it on throughout the year.”

Next on the radar? Team Canada and the World Juniors.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play in the World Junior Championship, but I really haven’t given too much thought about it. If that day comes, it’ll be a great honor to wear that jersey.”

London Knights’ assistant coach Dylan Hunter explained that Horvat’s experience as a 16-year-old, combined with his team-first nature, has served him well developmentally this summer.

“Last year he had confidence, he knew he was a good player and what he was capable of doing,” Hunter explained. “What makes him so good is that he’s an unselfish, two-way player — he has no problem being a defensive player. So last year he was focusing more on that, which is what we needed. This year he’s making more plays in the offensive zone, he’s carrying the puck up the whole ice, which we want, and it’s good to see. He’s really settling into the type of player that he’s going to be.”

The scouts, evidently, like the player Horvat is going to be. ISS listed Horvat among its Top 30 draft-eligible prospects and NHL Central Scouting assigned an “A” skater designation to Horvat, indicating its belief that he could be selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Horvat, however, remains unfazed by the recognition.

“I wasn’t really paying too much attention to it. I was told by a couple of guys about those rankings. It’s obviously a very big accomplishment so far for me. It’s motivating for sure,” he said. “I just have to stick to my game plan and try not to think about [the scouts] too much. I try to focus on the team and how the team does.”

Instead of focusing on the draft, Horvat is focusing on himself — and getting better. He’s appreciative of the lessons he’s received and said the fact that he’s playing in the OHL hotbed of London, ON has only helped.

“It’s huge for me. There are a lot of great hockey players that come to this organization and that I’ve had a chance to play with,” Horvat said. “Last year we had Austin Watson and Greg McKegg, Jared Knight and Namestnikov — they were just a big help to me and people that I looked up to. They were great leaders and great mentors for me and I learned a lot from them both on the ice and off the ice.

“I just noticed the “pro”-ness of them. How they acted before games and how they performed on the ice. It just all gives me the motivation and helps me see what it takes to get to the next level.”

And Horvat has benefited from some of that next-level training thanks to the NHL lockout. Several NHL players, including Corey Perry and Drew Doughty, have practiced with the Knights — and some of those lessons are rubbing off, his coach explained.

“We can tell them to do what we want, but when you have a guy like Corey Perry telling you their little tricks, it’s a big tool and Bo utilizes it very well — he’s a hard-working kid,” Hunter explained. “Humble too. When Corey was taking him aside, I think he was awestruck that he would take the time to do that for him. He’s been getting his points in front now.”

Horvat is a local boy, which helps explain some of the awe. He literally grew up watching the OHL — and the Knights in particular.

“I remember when he first came last year he said to me, ‘Yeah, I remember watching you when you guys won the Mem Cup and I was, like, 12! I was like, ‘Jeezus! And now you’re quite a bit better than I was,” Hunter said.

And while some players prefer to get away from home when they play, Horvat said he loves the fact that he gets to play in front of friends and family.

“Actually, I like it. I’m from Rodney, Ontario — about 50 minutes from here — so my family’s here, I grew up watching games here — and it’s amazing playing in front of 9,000 people every game,” Horvat explained. “I have tons of support from my family. I have at least 10 family members come to each home game and my dad’s at every other game.”

Horvat has shown he’s ready for the increased role — accounting for five goals in the Knights’ first five games after scoring 11 last year. He added that he dedicated himself to getting better knowing the opportunity that was before him.

“I want to work on my skating, trying to work on my stops and starts,” he said. “I’ve been skating this summer, and now that the season’s on, working with a power skating coach on my explosiveness.”

Hunter agreed that skating was priority one, but not due to any perceived deficiency. In fact, he said there’s a lot to like about Horvat.

“Beside everything that he does well, we would like to see him finish his hits a little bit more; be a little bit more physical with how big he is. And he needs to work on his foot speed,” Hunter said. “With him, he’s got good speed, but it’s one of those things that he’s going to be working on, he has worked on it, and he will be continually working on it.

Like they say in the NHL, you can never be fast enough.”

Horvat is appreciative of his coach’s message — and the fact that both Dale and Mark Hunter have been to the NHL before. They know what it takes to make it, he explained, and the focus is on taking that next step.

“Everything that they do for you and everything they teach you is all really pro focused,” he said. “They know what it takes to get to the next level. They really focus on how to act like a pro.”

And part of being a pro is pushing yourself to go further. Last year, the Knights fell one game short of winning the Memorial Cup. This year’s edition is benefiting from the fact that Horvat and fellow draft-eligible forward Max Domi had a front-row (and frequently on-stage) seat to that experience.

“I think what really helped last year with Bo and Max [Domi] was that these 16-year-old kids were making that run,” he said. “Now they got a taste of it and they want to go again. They’re good kids and they’re willing to buy into any system that we put them in to and mold their play to make it work.”

You get the impression that no matter where he plays, Horvat — who counts Mike Richards as an on-ice model — is going to make the most of it.

“Ever since I was growing up, my dad was a fan of Detroit. I may be a little bit of a Detroit fan, but I really just enjoy the game — I love being around the game,” Horvat said. “I love the atmosphere; I love watching NHL games. I’ve never had a die-hard favorite team.

“I just love the hockey atmosphere.”

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @jaycmenard