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GENE'S BLOG: One in a Milan

In his latest blog, Gene Principe reminisces with Milan Lucic on the Oilers forward's hometown and hockey memories, ahead of his return to Vancouver on Friday night

by Gene Principe @GenePrincipe / Sportsnet

It's not the first time he's played in Vancouver as a member of the opposition, but this will be the first time Milan Lucic is doing it with Edmonton. He played there in the pre-season but it's now that matters for the hulking left winger's return to his hometown. Born and raised in Vancouver - East Vancouver in fact - is how Lucic explained his birthplace.

He is one of three boys. His older brother is Jovan who for the last four years has been living in Belgrade. His younger brother Nic still lives in the city. He plans on being at Friday's game between Edmonton and Vancouver. His parents, Dobro and Snežana, met in Canada and both came from the former Yugoslavia. They raised their boys with love, compassion, discipline and of course sports in what Lucic called 'a great upbringing'. Milan fell for hockey. As you might expect, he didn't play for some high-end club teams, instead, it was with Killarney of the Vancouver Minor Hockey Association. "I didn't play Triple-A," explained Lucic. "Part of it had to do with zoning restrictions, but I played a lot. I became a top player on the team because of the time I spent on the ice. It helped my development as much as it could."

As good as he was it wasn't a straight arrow pointing up for Lucic. He was big and strong but it didn't make for an easy path from minor hockey to the next step. He wasn't taken in the 2003 WHL bantam draft. Lucic didn't initially make the Junior A Coquitlam Express and instead played Junior B with the Delta Ice Hawks. Then came a hockey life-altering moment. He had been called up by Coquitlam and was practicing with them. Lucic goes on to explain, "Where we were practicing was also the Giants practice facility. They saw me skate with the Express and that's basically how I was discovered." Lucic, in one season, went from Junior B to Junior A to Major Junior.

In Vancouver, he truly was a Giant - in every sense of the word. Big hits, big fights and big numbers, big awards (Memorial Cup MVP) and big championships (Mastercard Memorial Cup). It led to him being selected 50th overall in his draft year by Boston. He was kind of the next coming of Todd Bertuzzi. As a kid, his Uncle Dan made the NHL, but it was his hometown Canucks that were his favourite team. His favourite line included Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Bertuzzi. "I loved watching the West Coast Express," exclaimed the 28-year-old. "I enjoyed seeing that line but I definitely watched him (Bertuzzi) closely. I watched them every chance I could but they could never quite get over the hump."

That's what he has been brought in to do for Edmonton. The hump right now is to just make the playoffs and then to give Milan and his mates a chance at a Stanley Cup. It hasn't taken him long to become a fan favourite. It's how he plays, how he leads, how he scores and how he'll protect a teammate. Case in point, his opening night fight with Derek Engelland after the Flame overhandled Connor McDavid. A quality that is connected to his youth. "I grew up in a tough neighborhood and I was really close with my brothers as we were only three-and-a-half years apart," explained the winger. "We went to a tough school and you had to have thick skin. What I learned there helped me become my own person." Lucic went on to add, "It's the way it was. We had each other's backs and I brought that into my hockey."

Didn't take long to notice that from Milan Lucic, but that's something people from Vancouver already know and will see again on Friday night.

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