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Draft eligible Hitmen tackle Combine interviews head-on

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

There’s a couple weird questions here and there. You get them but you just go with what your heart tells you. I think it’s a lot of fun meeting people and especially telling them about your family and all the stories you have. It’s a great experience. Jake Virtanen

TORONTO, ON -- In a span of 96 hours, Jake Virtanen will have met with 24 National Hockey League clubs at the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto.

But the Calgary Hitmen forward, one arm in a sling after offseason shoulder surgery, doesn’t mind running the interview gauntlet one bit.

“It’s a great time,” Virtanen said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with just the time here and meeting a lot of people here and having fun with it. I think it’s a great experience and an amazing honour.”

The variety of questions he -- and Hitmen teammates Travis Sanheim and Ben Thomas -- has faced through the first three days of the one-on-team process are varied.

Some are designed to learn more about a prospect’s background. Others test aptitude and one’s ability to think on their feet.

And the rest? They’re designed to keep a prospective player on their toes, to say the least.

“There’s a couple weird questions here and there," he said. "You get them but you just go with what your heart tells you. I think it’s a lot of fun meeting people and especially telling them about your family and all the stories you have. It’s a great experience.

“Going in there, it’s a bit of interview preparation to do but I think it’s really fun. It’s a great experience.”

Sanheim, meeting with all 30 NHL clubs and Thomas, working a similar circuit, have run into similar questions.

It keeps you paying attention, Thomas admitted.

“Most of the teams ask you pretty similar questions but then you get the odd one that’s a little bit different,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound defenceman said. “Some can catch you by surprise. There’s not too many of them, but when you get one that you haven’t answered before you can kind of hesitate and it takes a little while to give an answer.

“It catches you off guard.”

What won’t catch Thomas by surprise, though, is the fitness portion of the combine.

And while he may not have had Saturday circled in his calendar, the 18-year-old is more than ready to tackle the likes of the Windgate and VO2 in front of the teams he’s just ran the mental gauntlet with.

“I’ve done (the Windgate test) before,” he said. “It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just 30 seconds and it’s over. It’s pretty tough but it’s not going to be too bad.

“It’s always nice to see where the other top players are in terms of fitness. It’ll be good to see that.”

He and Sanheim won’t be competing against Virtanen, however.

Virtanen will skip the physical testing portion of the combine after undergoing shoulder surgery that will force him out for 4-6 months.

But that wasn’t always the plan, he said.

“I was expecting to do all the physical testing,” said Virtanen, whose 45 goals led the Hitmen in scoring this season. “I wasn’t sure if anyone know but it was a last second thing for my surgery. It’s kind of tough for me. I’m going to be watching those guys go to work.

“I think I’ll have fun watching them, too.”

It was a disappointing end to a season that saw the Burnaby, BC native record 71 points in his second season in the Western Hockey League.

The Hitmen were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs, but that was consoled slightly by earning bronze for Canada at the World Under-18 Championship.

“It’s tough,” Virtanen said. “I thought I had a fun year and a great year. I had a great experience playing with the Hitmen again this year. I had a lot of fun with the guys. We had a close team and a great group of guys in the room.

“I think the year went well and going to the U18’s and playing there and meeting some new guys there. It was a lot of fun, too.”

The experiences, good and bad, positive and negative, have helped shape the most memorable season of his young career -- one that passed in the blink of an eye.

“I’m still trying to soak it all in right now,” Virtanen said. “It’s gone by really fast for me. The last time I remember, it was only mid-season. It’s been nice and short. The draft is coming in really fast here. I’m just trying to soak it in and experience everything and have fun with it.”

Thomas, like Virtanen, has seen his draft eligible season pass by in a flash.

“It kind of flew by,” he said. “One minute you’re playing your first game and the next you’re all the way at the draft.

“It’s kind of flashed before my eyes here.”

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