The distinct buzz that hockey provides Vancouver just wasn’t there. People were confused as to what to watch come Saturday night without Hockey Night in Canada, and had nothing to talk about at the water cooler Monday morning.
There was one group, however, that most definitely benefitted from the break in the NHL season – and strangely enough they were a hockey team too. For the four-month lockout, the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team shared the ice with several of the Vancouver Canucks.
“We had an optional skate and I knew there was five or six Canucks, so I asked them if they wanted to combine practice,” explained Milan Dragicevic, head coach of the Thunderbirds. “From then on in they started skating with us for a couple days of week and it just kind of snowballed.”
It was a mutually beneficial plan. With many Canucks players, including Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Chris Higgins and Manny Malhotra, electing to stay in Vancouver, they needed a high-paced team environment to prepare themselves for the eventual beginning of the NHL season and the Thunderbirds got the opportunity to pick the brains of the best players in the world.
“We learned a lot,” said Dragicevic. “How these guys prepare, how professional they are, how they come to work every day on and off the ice.”
Getting over the initial shock of sharing the puck with the Canucks he watches on TV was the most difficult part for Thunderbirds centre Max Grassi.
“It's always a little bit intimidating when there’s someone you aspire to be,” said Grassi. “The aura around them too, it was kind of like, 'Whoa, these guys are the best at what we're doing right now’”
That didn’t last long, admitted Grassi. “The guys would start up conversations when we were stretching on the ice or in passing they would say hi and recognize you.
“I think for us it was a big learning lesson that you can still have fun. You don't have to always go on the ice and be angry and serious. We often forget that’s why we play the game is to have fun and these professional guys show that you can still go out and have fun.”
Having fun with the experience didn’t seem to be a problem for Grassi, the Thunderbirds leading scorer, who picked up more than few tips from the Sedins, or ‘wizards’ as he likes to refer to them. Just check out the hilarious thank you message the team posted on YouTube.
The question of what exactly a wizard does on the ice is naturally up next. Thankfully Grassi was more than happy to conjure up an explanation of what goes into a wizard’s game.
Firstly, “when the wizard is on, the game is played at his pace. They always know where the puck is going and where it needs to be at all times, this is why the Sedins seem to use telepathy on the ice,” clarified the North Vancouver native.
“What separates a wizard from a regular player is that a regular player inspires themselves, but a wizard inspires others.”
Perhaps most obviously, “their stick is a wand. The puck is cherished by them - giving it away is a sin,” laughed Grassi.
Despite all the wizard talk, this wasn’t Hogwarts, some serious work was done and Dragicevic has seen his team improve from the experience.
“They’ve approached practice with a little bit more of a professional attitude. That for the 60 minutes that they are here for practice it’s time to work.”
That professional attitude is paying off, with the T-Birds reeling off a 5-2-1 record since the Canucks returned to work. “It’s been the little things, as far as centremen winning face-offs, what Manny taught them to do, Higgins in front of the net tipping shots. Our guys are doing some of the things these guys were teaching them.”
When the lockout ended it was a bittersweet pill to swallow for the Thunderbirds.
“We were kind of upset in a way that the lockout ended because we kind of lost our buddies out there in practice,” said Grassi. “As much as the lockout probably wasn't too good for most Vancouverites, we were part of the select few who got to benefit from it.”
Dragicevic agrees. ”Overall I can say it was just a fantastic experience for the coaching staff and the players and it’s something we will never forget.”
Photo credit: Bob Frind