If the Labour Day rain wasn’t sign enough, you only had to look to General Motors Place on a chilly Monday morning to realize that summer is quickly drawing to a close.
Twenty-three Canucks hopefuls – including Cody Hodgson and Sergei Shirokov - filed through the gates of General Motors Place today to kick-off prospects camp.
Not surprisingly Hodgson’s back was the biggest news of the day. The 19-year-old was greeted with a Luongo-like scrum when he entered the media room to deliver a simple status update.
“I’m making steady progress,” said Hodgson, who’s still recovering from a back injury suffered during summer workouts. “Talking with the doctors out here - they have a pretty good feeling about it. It’s really improving, but it’s not improving as quickly as I had hoped.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault said the 19-year old will skate with the team, though hasn’t been cleared for contact. He also won’t fly to Edmonton for back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday against the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Oilers prospects (Canucks vs. Oilers game will be streamed on Canucks.com).
It comes as no surprise to anyone east of the Rockies that Vigneault and company are anxious to see how the World Junior gold medalist and CHL player of the year will respond to NHL competition at his second pro camp.
“Cody is no different than any other player,” cautioned Vigneault. “He has to earn a spot. That being said, there’s a lot of upside to his game. He’s one of the few guys I got to see [play] at the World Championships last year and obviously he had a great season.”
"We're looking forward to see what he can do at this level. He's definitely going to get every opportunity to show his thing and I'm confident that he's going to do real well."
Part of Hodgson’s challenge will be dealing with the pressure of playing in a city like Vancouver; a city that packed a spare dressing room in the basement of GM Place with 12 reporters and seven cameras on a Labour Day Monday – all to interview a handful of players who have yet to play a single NHL game.
"I think all players have to be able to handle pressure, and pressure in a market like Vancouver is there on a daily basis," said Vigneualt. "I think Cody, in the past, has handled himself really well in situations where there has been a lot of pressure and I don't see why it should be any different."
If that pressure has seeped into Hodgson’s head, it didn’t show.
"I'm pretty excited. I want to get back and it's driving me nuts not being able to have contact but I know it takes some time."
The prospects will skate again at UBC Tuesday at 11:15 am and Wednesday at 9:00 am before boarding a plane to Alberta.
LONG WAY HOME
While Hodgson certainly claimed top-billing during Monday morning’s media session, Russian winger Sergei Shirokov was a close second.
Nobody save for a few scouts and a handful of self-professed internet hockey gurus have ever seen him play, which only heightens the anticipation for the 5-foot-10, 176-pound winger.
It’s little surprise then that Shirokov commanded a media scrum that would’ve put the ghost of Michael Jackson to shame – though his very loose grasp of English did little to dissipate the cloud of mystery that hangs around Vancouver’s 2006 sixth-round pick who left the Kontinental Hockey League to ink a contract with the Canucks this August.
“I don’t know him at all,” said Vigneault. “I’ve never met him, but I’m looking forward to meeting him and seeing him on the ice.”
It’s not difficult to understand why the Canucks world is buzzing about a slick Russian scorer considering the club’s history with Red Army graduates.
Nobody is suggesting Shirokov is the second coming of Pavel Bure, though the prospect of a finely-tuned offensive machine joining the organization at 23 years of age is certainly an intriguing one – especially a player like Shirokov who falls somewhere between the snuffleupagus and DB Cooper on the Vancouver’s public profile meter.
“I got an opportunity to see him just for 15 minutes the other day down at UBC and obviously you see a lot of skill there,” said Vigneault who counted himself among the curious. “I’m like everybody else.”
More intriguing than his skill – and judging by a few swift forays up ice Monday afternoon there’s plenty of it – is his desire to test himself against NHL competition.
“For a young man to leave his home country with the money he was making there - and could’ve been making - to come here to North America, to Vancouver, and want to prove that he can play in the NHL says a lot about the young man,” Vigneault said.
Senior advisor Stan Smyl, who watched the Moscow-native play last season describes him as: “An offensive-minded type of a player who's very creative with the puck and likes to make plays, but also is good at finishing.”
He certainly did plenty of that paired with Prab Rai in the first on-ice session, though his most dazzling moment came early in the second-session when he delivered a no-look backhand pass to Steven Anthony who tapped a gimme behind Bobby Nadeau during three-on-two drills.
Abbotsford-native Kellan Tochkin met the press as a member of the Canucks organization for the first time Monday since signing an entry-level contract in July. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound right winger from the WHL’s Everett Silvertips whose game has drawn comparisons to Kyle Wellwood, could only describe his first-impressions as “weird”.
“Right in my backyard, I was a huge Canucks fan growing up. Kind of being in the mix of things is very exciting.”
“Last year when I came home for Christmas I was at two Canucks games… just there as a fan. Now I’m part of the organizations. It’s very, very weird.”
Like Tochkin, defenceman Evan Oberg signed with the Canucks in July after going undrafted. The Forestburg, Alberta native left the University of Minnesota-Duluth after two seasons to join Vancouver.
“It was a dream come true signing with an NHL team, especially one you grew up watching and stuff. I always thought I could finish school at any time, so I just took advantage of this opportunity.
And how does a young hockey player growing up in Oiler country become a Canucks fan?
“I don’t know, I think it was Pavel Bure who was my idol back then.”
Following an uncomfortable few minutes during which the more bold reporters attempted to coax some English answers out of Sergei Shirokov - who gamely stood in front of the lights and did his best to answer to no avail – CBC’s Karen Larson mercifully signaled the end of the scrum after Shirokov stood frozen after being asked describe his style of game. She stepped away in surrender saying, “Okay, we tried.”
The young Russian drifted slowly out of the room. He paused at the door, turned, and apologized to the crowd of reporters: “Sorry, maybe next time.”
A reporter asked, “When will that be?”
His response: “Couple of months?!?”
Three-on-two Dan Gendur drifts over the line unchecked. He takes a pass in the slot and rips a slap shot over Bobby Nadeau’s shoulder eliciting cheers from the jammed UBC rink.
A slick Sergei Shirokov streaks over the blueline and draws the defence to him before slipping a puck back through traffic to partner Prab Rai at the far post for a tap in.