A shoulder injury robbed prospect Jake Virtanen of making his debut in the Canucks Young Stars Classic last year.
That won’t be the case this year for the Vancouver Canucks’ first round pick, sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
After his season with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen ended, Virtanen joined the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Utica Comets for their Calder Cup playoff run. In 10 games, he collected one assist. Virtanen then took a week off to relax and was back to work with the Canucks training staff five days a week.
“I was in Vancouver pretty much all summer,” said Virtanen, who praised the work trainers did with him. “I feel as strong as ever. I feel healthy. It was a good summer.”
When Virtanen did have time to kick back, he spent it with family and friends in Abbotsford. Among the things they did was wakeboarding at Cultus Lake or boating. Aside from coming to Penticton for the Canucks Young Stars Classic last summer, Virtanen and his family have spent time in the Peach City.
“The lakes are really nice there. We are right on the water,” he said. “The rink (South Okanagan Events Centre) that we play in is pretty nice as well. The fans packed the building pretty well there.”
Virtanen’s summer focused on being ready to earn a spot on the Canucks this season. The experience the Hitmen forward gained last season in Utica, he plans to utilize this weekend. Virtanen said it was great playing in the AHL playoffs, though he wasn’t sure he would get into the lineup.
“Travis Green put me in and the first game was pretty nerve-racking,” he said. “For me just to jump into the playoffs like that was pretty intense. After the first couple games, I found myself pretty comfortable. I got used to it pretty quick. I’m just going to bring that experience, going to the Calder Cup finals and playing against some really high-end talent.”
With the Hitmen, Virtanen made it as far as the third round twice. After putting up 21 goals and 52 points in 50 regular season games, he added another five goals and 13 points in 14 playoff tilts. During the Calder Cup run, he faced men who were stronger and faster.
“I just kept playing my game. Kept hitting guys out there, kept banging bodies,” added Virtanen, who recorded 10 shots and was plus-two.
When it comes to playing in the Canucks Young Stars Classic, he is excited.
“I can’t wait to get on the ice,” he said, adding that teammates have told him about what it’s like in the Classic. “There is a lot of good prospects in this tournament. Especially this year with (Connor) McDavid. It’s going to be pretty fun there and going head-to-head against some really good prospects. The first game is going to be high intensity. Guys are going to be flying out there.”
While in Toronto two weeks ago for the National Hockey League Players Association Rookie Showcase, Virtanen chatted with McDavid, who told him he’s excited about the Classic.
“It will be nice playing him on Friday,” he said.
Fans can watch Virtanen and McDavid battle Friday at the South Okanagan Events Centre at 7:30 p.m. A limited number of seats and standing room tickets have been released for previously sold out Classic games.