Local NHL players put on a show at a North Vancouver rink
With the upcoming NHL season fast approaching, Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen says he's ready to step up his game.
Over the last couple of weeks, Virtanen and other local NHL players have been playing in a summer league called the "boys of summer."
"We have a really good group of players out here to get ready for the season, its high tempo and intense, it gets us ready for camp," said Virtanen in an interview Wednesday.
It's been a busy off season as he continues to train and have a little fun: in June, Virtanen took part in the Vancouver Canucks fishing for kid's tournament in Haida Gwaii.
"I like to go fishing. I ended up going solo as some people couldn't make it, so I was the only guy on the team to go," said the Canucks winger.
"I caught a 33-pound chinook salmon, pretty excited about that, not that many people get that big of a fish when they are up there."
Virtanen's nick name is "Big Tuna," so it makes sense he's able to reel in a big fish.
The idea for the "boys of summer" league stems from the "Da Beauty League," formed in Minnesota to bring pro hockey players together in the summer. It's where Canucks forward Brock Boeser plays in the off-season, and it's geared to get the players prepared for the upcoming season.
This year, organizer Jon Calvano gathered as many professional hockey players local to the Lower Mainland as he could and formed the league.
"They've been training together for the past four years in the summer and prior to that they have played minor hockey locally with and against each other so they are all familiar and respect each other," explained Calvano.
Players including Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, San Jose Sharks goalie Marty Jones and Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, along with several other pro players recently took to the ice to raise money and awareness for mental health and Cystic Fibrosis.
Kids were surprised to see NHL players playing at their rink, Canlan Ice Sports in North Vancouver, and 13-year-old Cohen got to see them up close.
"It's amazing. It's a great experience watching these NHLers. It's not a stadium, it's your average ice arena where normal kids come practice and have a good time playing, and you come to the rink on an average day and you don't expect to see this well, it's here, it's quite amazing," he said.
Nugent-Hopkins, the 1st overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, is coming off a career year with the Oilers, playing all 82 games, scoring 28 goals and racking up 69 points. He says he likes the four-on-four scrimmages because it is highly competitive and everyone wants put on a good show for the kids in the stands.
"I think it's cool for the kids to be able come out and see some of the players they watch on TV throughout the year at their rink where they skate and practice, it makes it more fun when you hear some cheers and kids banging on the glass," Nugent-Hopkins told CTV News.
The kids swarmed the Oilers forward and the North Vancouver-born Rielly for photos and autographs after the scrimmage, and as for Virtanen, he hasn't quite reached that star status, but says he's ready to put the puck in the net this year.
"I'd like to score more goals, and that is something I'm coming into the season and trying to do, score 20 plus goals - that is a goal I've set for myself. By doing that, I've got to play my game use my speed and create offensive opportunities for myself, and I'm excited for the season to start," said the former 2014 sixth overall pick.
The Canucks have committed to a youth movement, adding forward Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes to the lineup recently.
Virtanen says it's an exciting time to be a part of a complete team aiming for a post-season berth.
"Moving forward with a lot of the acquisitions we got we're moving in the right direction and I think we will be a playoff team this year," the Canucks forward told CTV News Wednesday.
Virtanen, who just turned 23, is still developing his game as a power forward and showed flashes of it last year, but not on a consistent basis.
This year he's ready and still feels young.
"I still feel 19, so that's the good thing: my body feels young and I'm feeling fresh, so that's great."
The "boys of summer" league wraps up Thursday from the Canlan Ice Sports Arena.