Rubbing shoulders with hockey royalty and skating alongside today’s champions, trophy winners and team leaders at the NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, a thought nagged at Bo Horvat.
Do I deserve this? Do I belong here, in the same room as my dad’s heroes and today’s elite?
“Yeah, I do,” Horvat concluded. “I’ve proven myself. I’ve taken my game to another level this year.”
As he says this, close friend and leader of the next wave Connor McDavid is a shout away. Sidney Crosby holds court near by. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are all in the same ballroom.
The Horvats arrived en masse and rolled deep in La La Land. Bo’s parents and grandparents, his brother and girlfriend representing for their family’s premiere etoile.
So what if they couldn’t find a Horvat sweater to buy? Bo knows he’s establishing himself, on the ice and in his mind, as a legitimate No. 1 centre. One flexing enough resilience to take a slapshot in the head and return to the game. One belonging enough to be first to embrace a rival goalie when he does the unthinkable at an all-star game.
Horvat hasn’t secured employment for next season, however, and the uncertainty of his next contract is creeping into his imagination. Negotiations have not begun and won’t, he says, until season’s end.
“I think about it,” Horvat says. “It’s definitely in the back of your mind. For me, to go play my game and not think about it right now, just go play the end of the season and not worry about it is going to help me and the team. It’s out of my hands. It’s in my agent’s hands and Jim [Benning] and that staff. My thing is, go play hockey.”
That he’s done, and on steady incline.
A 25-point rookie campaign was followed by a 40-point sophomore season, and he’s trumping that with a team-best 14 goals and 32 points. Horvat also ranks first on his club in even-strength and short-handed points and has bettered his plus/minus by 28 points since 2015-16. As a rookie, Horvat won the majority of his faceoffs, and he’s improved in the dot, too, now up to a 52.6 per cent success rate.
How’s this one? Horvat topped all Canucks with 55 points in the 2016 calendar year despite ranking seventh among forwards in even-strength time on ice.
Wonderful exhibits for Horvat’s agent, Mark Guy, to trot out this summer, one boasting another deep class of RFA centremen.
Does Horvat wait for other RFA pivots like Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund, Nashville’s Ryan Johansen, Tampa’s Tyler Johnson, Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk to sign and set the market?
Does Vancouver prefer a short-term bridge deal, or will the Canucks try to lock up Horvat long-term before his price rises even higher?
Remember, he’s only 21.
“You look at the kid, the maturity level. What’s his approach? What are his day-to-day work habits?” Canucks president Trevor Linden said when we raised the topic in December.
“Definitely, Bo is an important guy for us. We see him as a leader of this group as he continues to develop. He’s an impressive kid. You gotta make sure the internals are right before [you sign a long-term deal]. Certain guys can handle it; certain guys have trouble.”
Last summer was a monster for RFA centres. Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele (now fifth in league scoring) looks to be handling his eight-year, $49-million home run nicely, while Calgary’s Sean Monahan (seven years, $44.6 million) and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg (six years, $36 million) stumbled out the gate under the weight of their windfalls.
Short on high-end young talent up front, the Canucks can ill afford a contract dispute here, especially considering the price they paid to land Horvat four years ago.
Linden would not tip his hand if he sees Horvat responding well to the security and life-altering payday a long-term deal can bring, but Horvat says he’s gleaning habits from the best role models a player could ask for: Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“They’ve had the biggest impact on my career from a player standpoint,” Horvat says. “They come to work every day with a smile on their face. They do unbelievable things in the community.
“It makes you want to be like them and help out that way.”
When the twins begin their own contract years in the fall of 2017-18, they’ll be 37. The Sedins’ all-star absence underscored the Canucks’ changing of the guard, however gradual.
“They’re going in a different path. The team’s starting to get a lot younger. We’ve got a lot of rookies in the lineup this year,” Horvat says. “Younger and faster. Hank and Danny are still playing unbelievable. To have that depth in the lineup, where you have some older guys still playing well and some younger guys trying to prove themselves to get a spot, It evens our team out.”
Wowed by the Sedins’ ability to win the Canucks’ fitness tests every training camp — “They’re freaks that way” — Horvat appreciates how they’ve picked him up when he’s down, like during his 27-game goal drought last season.
“Danny goes, ‘Twenty-some games without a goal in my second year.’ And Hank came up to me in Philadelphia and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Play your game. You’re playing well. I went through it in my third year. Thirty-some games without a goal,'” Horvat recalls. “For him to calm me down like that is something I’ll never forget.”
Horvat arrived to Team Sedin under shocking and touchy circumstances, when then-GM Mike Gillis traded goaltender Cory Schneider, a fan favourite, for the ninth-overall pick of the 2013 draft.
“All those tweets about that being a bad trade is probably the worst thing [fans have said to me],” Horvat says. Now he can chuckle. “The whole Schneider ordeal has kinda passed. He’s doing great in New Jersey, and I’ve found my way in Van, so it’s blown over.”
We’re blown over how Horvat has used power skating to improve his stride, what he once called the greatest weakness in his game, to be picked by McDavid to represent the Pacific in the Fastest Skater contest.
Horvat was blown over that he got to shake hands with Wayne Gretzky, whose highlight DVDs, a gift from Dad, he watched “a million times over” as an Ontario kid travelling to tournaments.
(Fun fact: McDavid snapped this photograph.)
Hockey critics in general are blown over by the Canucks, a much-derided roster that has battled through key injuries and brutal offensive slumps to remain within one point of a playoff spot.
“People were expecting us to be one of the worst teams in the league,” Horvat says.
“To prove everybody wrong that way, to have that in the back of your mind where you want to prove people wrong, it gives you extra motivation to be better.”
Maybe the Canucks are better than you thought.
Maybe the Schneider trade was a stroke of brilliance by Gillis.
Maybe Bo Horvat is the type of guy who can not only handle all that is to come but deserves it.