For the first 10-and-a-half years of his career, Schenn never left the NHL. Sure, he changed teams four times and eventually saw his role as a tough, defensive defenceman diminish as the league evolved and became increasingly about mobility and puck movement and blue-liners who can fly up and down the ice.
Still, it was a good career, right up until November when the Anaheim Ducks sent Schenn to the minors and told him as he left that there was no chance he was coming back to the NHL.
Halfway through a one-year contract, Schenn had just turned 29 and was playing in the American Hockey League for the first time. A lot of things crossed his mind during his long drives between home in Newport Beach and the Ducks’ farm team in San Diego. One of them was that his NHL career might be over.
"I don’t want to say I ever took this for granted," he says, sitting in the Vancouver Canucks’ dressing room. "But you don’t realize how good this is until you’re away from it. I think when I cleared waivers, it was: ‘Holy smokes, am I ever going to get the chance to play in the NHL again?’ Now that I am, I’m trying to just enjoy it. I’m not thinking about next year."
Hughes’ dazzling debut for the Canucks in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings was only slightly more surprising than the guy he played alongside.
Four months after clearing waivers and two months after the Canucks acquired him from the Ducks and sent Schenn to their own minor-league team in Utica, N.Y., the defenceman who had looked like one of the NHL’s dying dinosaurs shepherded Hughes through his first game.
After the rookie from the University of Michigan spectacularly beat veteran Trevor Lewis behind the Los Angeles net to create a scoring chance that ended with a debut assist on Brock Boeser’s second-period goal, Schenn ignored the celebration and instead confronted Lewis, who had knocked down Hughes at the end of the play.
Soon Schenn seemed to be confronting the entire L.A. lineup and at one point had two Kings pinned to the ice behind the net while goalie Jonathan Quick squirted water on him.
Apparently, Schenn is not going quietly from the NHL. The 2008 fifth-overall draft pick from Saskatoon and the Kelowna Rockets – Vancouver grabbed Hughes with the seventh pick last June – is refusing to leave Canucks coach Travis Green’s lineup.
He has played in seven straight games, and 14 of 16 since finally getting the chance to dress after a Feb. 15 recall from the AHL amid an injury crisis. On Thursday, Schenn logged 17:33 of ice time on a third pairing with Hughes. Four days earlier against Columbus, Schenn set a Canucks record with 12 hits in one game.
He is averaging 4.6 hits per game with Vancouver. The only NHL player who has been more prolifically physical this season is Vegas Golden Knights forward William Carrier, who averages five hits per game. But in Las Vegas, the stats crew splashes hits like nickel poker chips.
"I didn’t know what we were getting, but, man, is he a good example," Green told reporters this week when asked about Schenn. "I didn’t even know if he’d get in the lineup. I think his game has steadily improved with the more games he has played. And it’s not so much just his play, either. It’s his attitude and what he’s trying to bring to the table that others guys should watch and learn. You hope that guys are taking notice."
Like all players, Schenn says he works on improving foot speed. But he knows he’s not suddenly going to become a burner in his 30s. He’s trying to keep up to the new NHL by thinking the game faster, by making quicker reads that enable quicker play. And he’s relentlessly, effectively physical.
"Mark Giordano is 35 years old and is having a career year," Schenn says of the Calgary Flames’ defenceman. "I’d be surprised if he told you he just got faster. There’s no way I’m comparing myself to him, but I’m just saying he’s smart enough to think the game at a higher pace than other guys. There are a lot of veteran defencemen who aren’t necessarily getting faster. But there’s different ways that I’ve been taught – reading the rush, gapping up in the offensive zone, getting back for pucks – where you’re not necessarily getting into foot races."
Schenn credits San Diego and Utica coaches Dallas Eakins and Trent Cull for not giving up on him, even if former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle did.
"He’s a good example for young guys when they get in the lineup, to make sure you’re doing whatever you can to stay in the lineup," Green says. "Not only for this year but for next year.”
Schenn insists he’s not thinking about the future. He cherishes these games with the Canucks, knowing there’s no guarantee he’ll get another NHL contract after this one. His parents, Jeff and Rita, have travelled from Saskatchewan to see their son play. His wife Jessica and son Kingston are up from California.
"You want to keep going for other reasons than just yourself," Schenn says. "I’m a proud guy and I didn’t want to just roll over. I came up here and didn’t know if I was even going to get the chance to play. Any opportunity I get I’m grateful for.
"At the end of the day, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The organization’s going to make decisions on everyone. I just want to leave it all there on the ice and whatever happens happens. I don’t want to have any type of regret."