Playing mini-sticks in his basement for hours, days and weeks on end, Virtanen would emulate his favourite player, Markus Naslund, his shot, his finesse, his everything. The only thing that stopped Virtanen from playing was his mom calling him for dinner, but even then, his dream to one-day play in the NHL never took a break.
Now, sitting in his new stall in the Canucks dressing room, Virtanen’s life is surreal. Beside him sit Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata and as he looks around the dressing room, he sees Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Alex Edler.
The players Virtanen grew up watching and cheering for are now his teammates, with the exception of Naslund. The two will be face-to-face, however, this coming Monday when the Canucks celebrate the West Coast Express as part of the 20th anniversary of Rogers Arena.
The trio of Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison will reunite in Vancouver for the first time in a long time.
“I have some great memories of watching them play,” said Virtanen. “They were unstoppable and they each brought something different to the line. As a kid, it was so fun to watch.”
The West Coast Express dared Virtanen to dream big and his tale to the NHL wouldn’t be what it is without them.
Born in New Westminster and growing up in Abbotsford, Virtanen spent his childhood playing hockey in the lower mainland wearing number 19, after Naslund, of course. With his parents having Canucks season tickets when he was young, he was able to attend Canucks games all the time.
One memory of the West Coast Express rises above all others for him.
”It was some of the nicest passing I’ve ever seen,” recalled Virtanen. “They seemed to just know where the others were and tic-tac-toe, the puck was on Naslund’s stick and he scored. They always made goals like that look easy, when they’re really hard. They were really something amazing.”
The fact that Virtanen has begun his NHL career on the same Rogers Arena ice Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison shredded for four seasons isn’t lost on the 19-year-old, who became the highest drafted NHLer in Abbotsford Minor Hockey history when the Canucks selected him sixth overall in the 2014 entry draft. Before Virtanen, the Canucks had not drafted a BC native in over 30 years when they drafted Cam Neely in 1983.
It’s unclear whether or not Virtanen will play Monday when the Canucks face the Buffalo Sabres, but either way he’ll be back on home ice soon, feeling the pressure to perform. That’s what comes along with being a rookie following in the footsteps on an idol like Naslund, although Virtanen is already a lot like him when it comes to dealing with fans.
Virtanen was sitting in his stall following practice one day when a young boy approached, asking him for his autograph. Virtanen smiled and laughed with the boy, who was over the moon to be in his presence. It wasn’t too long ago that Virtanen was that boy and you never know, maybe in 10 years that kid will be sitting next to him in the dressing room.
Maybe they’ll make up two-thirds of the second coming of the West Coast Express.
-Story by Sara Campbell