“I was in Hockey Academy in Abbotsford and the sport is huge there, the kids just love the game,” Virtanen recalled in a conversation about his hockey roots this week. “I played the majority of my minor hockey in Abbotsford and Langley, mostly Abbotsford, and I love playing there. We had such a good team both my first and second year teams were really good and such good guys.”
Virtanen, 19, was selected sixth overall by the Canucks at the 2014 NHL entry draft. An alumnus of Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, Virtanen was the second in a string of three consecutive first-round draft picks that went to the Abbotsford-based high school.
“We've had three first rounders from that high school in Abbotsford - Noah Juulsen (Montreal) and Shea Theodore (Anaheim),” Virtanen recalled in a conversation about his roots this week. “So three first rounders in three straight years, we have a pretty good hockey group I guess.”
A pretty good hockey group might be an understatement.
“It definitely pushes you,” Virtanen continued of facing future NHL players at the high school level,“ Virtanen said, ”because I was always playing against them or with them.”
During his time at Yale, Virtanen witnessed the growth of the program and the growth of the sport at the grassroots level in general in the Abbotsford-Mission metro area.
“When I was (at Yale) it was pretty much just local players,” Virtanen said, recalling the schools growth into a serious development school in Western Canada, “but now they've started building so (they play) OHA and Pursuit of Excellence and Edge in Calgary.
“It's huge, it's just grown completely. It's pretty cool."
From Yale, to Major Midget in the Fraser Valley, to the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen – where Virtanen led all draft eligible CHL players in even-strength goals as a 17-year-old – to the NHL, Virtanen has worked on his game and found ways to a difference. It’s an ongoing process though, and he still has a lot to learn.
In his rookie season in the NHL, for example, Virtanen has been an impactful two-way force. While the Canucks do better to control the shot clock when he’s on the ice than they do with any other regular forward, the young Canucks winger still has a good deal to learn in his own end of the rink.
“The defensive part of his game comes from his checking - finishing his checks,” Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said of Virtanen’s defensive impact this week. “He's a heavy guy and when he's out on the ice D will throw the puck away a little quicker because he can finish hard. That's the defensive part of it right now that he can add to.
“The other part,” Desjardins continued, “he's still a young guy a little bit in our zone. He'll run around a little bit, but that's something we have to work with."
When you’re talking about a teenaged hockey player, you have to be conscious of the fact that development – particularly development in a league that’s as grueling and competitive as the NHL is – isn’t always linear. Sometimes what looks like failure, can turn into success. And sometimes what looks like a short-term success, can result in a player forming bad habits.
Jake’s experienced both sides of that coin in his first year in the toughest hockey league in the world.
His first career NHL goal, for example, was a delirious moment for the promising young forward, but in his youthful exuberance, he perhaps took the wrong lesson from that sequence.
“When the puck is loose on the wall, it's kind of in between me and the (defenseman) on the wall,” Virtanen said, describing a situation that has taught him what he can and can’t do at the NHL level. “(And) my first goal I scored by chipping it by him (the defender).
“Well defenseman will catch onto that all the time, usually that never happens - defenseman are generally getting that no problem,” Virtanen continued. “So it's probably happened, the same play like that after the goal, it probably happened three or four times, and I chip it and there's times that the defenseman gets it.
“And Willie gets on me: "Just because you scored once, doesn't mean it's going to happen every time!" It's just not going to happen like that.”
On the other side of the coin, what appeared to be a high profile disappointment – Virtanen’s lackluster and much criticized performance at the 2016 World Junior Championship tournament – perhaps benefitted his development.
“Since he's been back his focus has been pretty clear,” Desjardins said of how Virtanen’s play has improved over the past six weeks.
“He knows what he has to do,” Desjardins continued. “We need him to be a little bit more physical, but I think he did that real good the last game (against Minnesota last Monday). I think for him it's just getting a clear idea how he has to play to be successful, and when he plays well he plays physical and he goes to the net."
Virtanen agrees that his play has improved since coming back from Finland.
“I wanted to come back after a pretty average World Juniors, I had to come back and really prove myself,” Virtanen said. “It kind of sparked me and I just wanted to keep playing hard."
There’s really no doubt that Virtanen has just put in his best few weeks of the season. Though the Canucks have struggled mightily to control play over the past two months, they’ve controlled nearly 55 percent of all shot attempts with Virtanen on the ice and he’s even carved out a niche for himself on the second power-play unit.
He’s still learning how to best use his shot and he’s still putting in the work with Canucks skills coach Glenn Carnegie, with a focus on releasing the puck more quickly. And he’s still visiting his hometown of Abbotsford every chance he gets.
“I try to get back on every day off, I try to go home and have a nice dinner - my mom cooks,” Virtanen said this week. “And I'm going to try and go to Hockey Day in Canada that day, my dad told me I should come stop by so I think I'm going to go down and see what it's like. I've never been to one, so I'm looking forward to going there and seeing what it's all about."