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Soaring with the Thunderbirds

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Contrary to popular belief, this was definitely a win-win situation for both sides.

Sadly, it will soon come to an end.

With Sunday’s early morning news that the NHL and NHLPA reached an agreement on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the countdown to the end of Vancouver Canucks players practicing with the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team began.

It was fun while it lasted.

“We were very lucky to be here practicing with these guys,” said Henrik Sedin. “Even though it’s a university team, the kids are sharp and the tempo was great; it’s been a great fit for us here.”

Back in September when the league locked the players out, many NHLers opted to play hockey overseas, which recently included Cory Schneider and Mason Raymond, but with varying circumstances, that wasn’t an option for everyone.

Thankfully the Thunderbirds provided an alternative for the Canucks who remained in Vancouver, namely Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Manny Malhotra, Alex Edler, Jason Garrison, Chris Higgins, Dan Hamhuis and Maxim Lapierre, all of whom practiced at UBC Monday.

The players weren’t quite themselves in white and black NHLPA jerseys, yet the practice was more intense than expected; it’s been this way for months with Canucks able to sharpen their skills and stay in shape, and Thunderbirds getting hands on lessons from some of the league’s best players.

“It’s been great,” said Kevin Bieksa, explaining Canucks players were out with the Thunderbirds at least twice a week for the last four months.

“It raises the competitive level a little bit when you’re skating with another team as opposed to the eight of us on our own ice. We were very fortunate they had us out, we’re very appreciative of it and we’ve let them know that.”

“We’re grateful to them for everything they’ve done the last couple of months,” added Manny Malhotra. “The UBC men’s team, they were unbelievable. You can imagine how boring it gets skating with five, six, seven or eight guys, no goalies, so they really embraced us, allowed us to skate with them quite a bit and even in situations where there were too many guys on the ice, they were still accommodating to us.”

For Thunderbirds head coach Milan Dragicevic the experience his players gained from skating with the Canucks was invaluable. And despite NHLers having joined his team in previous years for late summer sessions, having them around consistently was a treat for him and his Thunderbirds.

Dragicevic didn’t feel any added pressure guiding professionals on the ice, but he admitted having them in game shape when the lockout ended was important to him.

“Our part as coaches is to make sure that when they go to training camp that they’re in good shape as far as on the ice,” said Dragicevic, who praised the Canucks work ethic and love and passion for hockey.

He downplayed whether or not he taught them much, despite the players saying otherwise. Dragicevic saw himself more as a leader for those who needed guidance.

“Hockey players just want to be told what to do on the ice and do the drills,” Dragicevic laughed. “Our guys looked forward to skating with them because they’re accommodating and would answer questions and they were more than willing to help on power play and PK, faceoffs, whatever.

“For our guys, for the last few months it’s been a dream for them to skate with some of the best players in the world and not only that, great people too. We wish them the best of luck.”

Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault will be pleased to hear Bieksa, Malhotra and others compared Dragicevic’s coaching style to his own.

Not only were the Canucks getting in quality workouts, they were getting solid coaching.

“Both demanding, very demanding of their teams and that’s a great quality to have as a coach,” said Malhtora. “By no means are they pushovers, they demand a lot out of their players, so I think that was the biggest similarity."

“They're similar in haircuts and builds too,” laughed Bieksa.

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