VANCOUVER – He doesn’t have to make a name for himself because Jett Woo already has one.
Even just on Thursday’s lineup sheet for the Vancouver Canucks’ prospects game at Rogers Arena, the 17-year-old stands out.
His first name gets a lot of attention because the defenceman from Winnipeg was named after actor Jet Li. The story goes that Woo’s grandfather, who immigrated to Canada and was active in Winnipeg’s Chinese community, was working towards helping Jet Li move to this country when the actor decided maybe he should go straight to Hollywood instead.
Jett Woo’s dad, Larry, who played junior hockey in Victoria and Swift Current before becoming a firefighter in Winnipeg, loved the name and gave it to his first-born son.
“My parents added an extra T,” Woo told Sportsnet. “I think for good luck.”
If things go well for the Canucks’ new second-round draft pick, eventually it’s Woo’s last name that could be a become a big thing on the West Coast.
Part of the tiny handful of players with Chinese ancestry who have been drafted in the National Hockey League, Woo hopes to play in a Metro Vancouver market that includes 400,000 residents of Chinese origin.
“It’s cool,” Woo told reporters two weeks ago at the draft in Dallas. “To have my heritage with me in this process is something that’s really cool to me. And to grow up so involved in my heritage, my family is something really special.”
Woo said this week that he doesn’t speak Chinese but plans to learn now that he has been drafted by the Canucks.
His surname is already popular in Moose Jaw, Sask., where he plays for the Western Hockey League’s Warriors. Each time Woo throws a heavy bodycheck, which is often, the home crowd responds with a joyful “Woooo!”
It’s like the crowd at Mosaic Place is full of Ric Flairs.
“Oh, yeah, they love it,” Warriors coach Tim Hunter said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of older fans in Moose Jaw and they remember the Crushed Can days (old Civic Arena) when they had those smash-mouth teams with guys like Theoren Fleury running around. They like a little bit of that, so Jett is definitely a fan favourite.
“He has that old-school rock ’em, sock ’em where he’s not afraid to lean into somebody. You don’t see a lot of big hits anymore and he’s willing to do that. And he’s not intimidated if guys want to make him accountable. We had a game in Spokane where he ran over a guy and their supposed tough guy came out and gave him a bit of an ear lashing. And the next shift Jett ran him over, too.”
There are plenty of “throwback” references to Woo due to his physicality. But there aren’t really any true throwback defencemen in the NHL anymore because even the tough ones have to be able to skate and make a pass.
Woo can do those things, too. The six-foot, 201-pound blueliner had nine goals and 25 points (with 33 penalty minutes and a plus-29 rating) in 44 games during a draft season interrupted by a separated shoulder. The November injury cost him 6 ½ weeks and, probably, the first-round draft selection that had been projected for him. The Canucks chose him 37th, six picks into the second round on Day 2 in Dallas.
Woo was on Canada’s team at the under-18 world championships and has been invited to Hockey Canada’s summer showcase tournament from July 28-Aug. 4 in Kamloops, B.C., where players will try to get a head start on making next winter’s world junior team.
Hunter was named Canada’s head coach for the under-20 championship, Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria.
So, Woo can play. But it’s his robust style, especially juxtaposed to the speed and offensive flair of Canucks top pick Quinn Hughes, that makes Woo an intriguing prospect. In a perfect world – the Canucks have never lived in one – Hughes and Woo could be a beautifully matched NHL defence pairing.
“He’s a competitor,” Canucks director of player development Ryan Johnson said. “He faced some adversity this season with an injury, and kind of fell further down the (draft) board than maybe people had expected early. But this is a high, high character kid that I do feel is very raw in his approach to a lot of things about the game, which we get excited about because that’s where our resources come in from a development side.
“He’s going to be an exciting project in the sense we know that everything we throw at him, he’s just going to take it and run with it.”
Woo admitted it was a challenge initially to get over the disappointment of being injured during his draft year. But he said he quickly stopped worrying about draft implications and focussed on getting healthy and playing as well as he could upon his return.
“The biggest thing that I realized … is it’s not really important when you get drafted but the team and what’s best for you,” he said. “That’s why I say I couldn’t be happier the way it worked out with me coming to Vancouver.
“I know I’ve been doing well, but there’s a whole other side (of my game) that needs to be unlocked. There is a lot of development still. I view that as a good thing.”
So do the Canucks.