VANCOUVER -- Simon Chen was limping as he left the ice early on the second day of Vancouver Canucks development camp, but the pain showing on the China-born defenseman's face had been replaced by a smile when he returned the next day.
There was no way Chen was going to let a charley horse stop him from continuing a dream that began when he was a young child. And there was no way the Beijing native was going to miss a chance to play in the Canucks Summer Showdown Top Prospects Game at Rogers Arena on Thursday.
Beyond what the experience means to Chen's development as a hockey player, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defenseman also knows how important it is to the growth of hockey in China.
"It's a huge honor to be a part of that," said Chen, who was invited to the July 4-6 camp as a free agent after playing his first season of tier 2 junior in the British Columbia Hockey League. "This is the Vancouver Canucks. This is an NHL development camp. That's something every kid who plays hockey grew up dreaming about, and especially for a kid born in China, this is even more special for me."
Chen, 20, has experienced that growth firsthand. He fell in love with the game when he was 6, after his mom dropped him and some friends off at a rink in Beijing. But Chen didn't really discover the NHL until two years later, when he attended a hockey school in Nova Scotia and his billet family gave him a box of hockey cards.
"[Sidney] Crosby is from that area," Chen said. "That was the first time I got to know the NHL, and the Pittsburgh Penguins was the first team I got to know and Crosby was obviously the first NHL player I got to know about."
Fast-forward to June, and things have changed.
"I went back to China to a local rink and kids are wearing Canucks jerseys or [Toronto] Maple Leafs jerseys, and they all know who Sidney Crosby is, they all know what the NHL is, and if you ask them, 'Hey, what do you want to be?' they say, 'I want to be an NHL player,'" Chen said. "When I started playing at age 6, there were probably four teams and two rinks in all of Beijing, which is a city of 20 or 21 million. Now there are over 50 rinks and thousands of youth players."
Video: DEV CAMP | Simon Chen Attends Prospects Camp
The Canucks will be part of that growth in September when they travel to Beijing and Shanghai for two preseason games against the Los Angeles Kings as part of the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging, the NHL, the NHL Players' Association and Bloomage International. With that trip coming and Chen playing nearby with Cowichan Valley in the BCHL, it was an easy decision for the Canucks to invite him to development camp.
"What better way than to invite one of their top young players to our camp to help further his development with the assets and resources we have," Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden said.
Chen, who played for China at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship Division II, is trying to make the most of his opportunity. His immediate goal is to earn an NCAA scholarship during his final season in the BCHL, but representing his country when it hosts the 2022 Beijing Olympics also is on Chen's radar, so he's taking the lessons at development camp to heart.
"I can see how intense he is every day," Canucks director of player development Ryan Johnson said. "You get the feeling he's learned a lot and is a better player for it."
Chen, who had three points in 52 games in his first BCHL season, won't be invited to Canucks training camp or travel with them to China for the preseason games, either of which would end his NCAA eligibility. For now, he is happy to live out his dream this week.
"The NHL is such a long reach," Chen said. "It was more a dream than something you have the ability to achieve, but I appreciate the Canucks making the dream a reality for now."