Even then, he can’t wipe away his ear-to-ear smile.
The 19-year-old Chilliwack, BC native was brought to the 2011 Young Stars Tournament on an invite with the Oilers. At 6’3” and 205 pounds, Vannieuwenhuizen plays with a physical edge that earned him 157 penalty minutes with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants last season.
“Yeah, I guess you could say I had a ‘physical’ year,” he laughed. “2010-11 was a big development year for me, too, though. Don Hay is an awesome coach and he provided me with some incredible opportunities to succeed. I got to play a lot, and alongside some extremely skilled players, too.
“I'm obviously a stay-at-home, physical defenceman. I'm trying to get up in the rush a little bit more now and I'm working on that quite a bit with my coaches in Vancouver."
He’s a daring, physically-imposing rearguard under every circumstance. While keen to improve in all areas, General Manager Steve Tambellini is content with what Vannieuwenhuizen brings.
“Wes is one of those gritty, hard-working players that every organization can use,” he explained. “We wanted to give him a chance at camp to see what he can do.”
“It's always nice to have that support, in that they have high hopes for me to succeed,” Vannieuwenhuizen added. “But at the end of the day, it's up to me to show them that I can bring it to the table every game. That's what I have to do in order to play; be up here to bring my best and show what I can do. It’s really exciting.”
Helping to make the decision was the pre-existing chemistry with David Musil
, with whom he was paired in Vancouver. Tambellini agreed, but said Vannieuwenhuizen’s play on his own was what earned the opportunity in Penticton.
In Vannieuwenhuizen’s case, having some extra support never hurts, especially when it comes from a close friend and teammate.
“Absolutely,” he smiled (even wider). “It's nice to have someone you know. We're D partners in Vancouver, so we're really close and we're roommates here. It's been awesome.”
And it’s only been four days.
“I can’t really describe the experience,” he said. “Coming here on the Oilers' plane and getting first-class treatment everywhere is amazing. It makes you want to work even harder out there. I’m really excited to be here, being able to practice and get the chance to play. The guys here are great and I’m honoured to be part of this group.”
As an invite, Vannieuwenhuizen has to make an immediate impression, knowing the business’ harsh uncertainty. In order to accomplish this, he’s approaching Oilers Rookie Camp like any other.
“I think this is a great opportunity to work on my skills,” he said. “I want to get quicker and, especially, work on my passing. Don (Hay) always talks about how important that is at the NHL level.
“You’ve got to be ready to pass and receive with quickness, so getting the chance to build on that here has been a valuable experience.”
But, also like any other, overthinking (and overplaying) can be problematic.
“I'm going to come here and play my game,” Vannieuwenhuizen said. “Going out of your comfort zone is never a good idea. You end up doing more harm than good.
“I’m going to do what I know, play my best and work hard. They’re all clichés, but it’s true and that’s what I need to focus on.”
Vannieuwenhuizen didn’t play in Game 1 when the Oilers ousted the Canucks in a 7-2 thumping, but he’ll get his chance against either the Jets or Flames as the schedule rolls on.
“Those games especially are going to be really physical, so I’m looking forward to it. It should be a great game and I’m excited to continue this process and show what I can do.
"It’s going to be a blast.”Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick