BANFF, Alta. – Nothing that occurred during the Vancouver Canucks’ pre-season was as significant and revealing as training camp in Victoria, where in a span of about 48 hours, Elias Pettersson skated teammates into the ice during interval testing, scored the first and best goals of the weekend, voluntarily signed autographs for an hour and stood through three press scrums.
The 20-year-old is not only trying to be a great player in the NHL, but is trying now to be a great leader, too.
This is not by accident.
In an exclusive interview with Sportsnet.ca, Pettersson said when he went home after winning the Calder Trophy in June, he reflected not only on what he had to do to improve as a player, but improve as a person – one who may be spending many years in a blinding spotlight.
“Yes, it’s actually something I thought about: how I want to look to you guys,” Pettersson said. “I’ve been thinking about it a little bit, how I want to look in the media. I’m new to the spotlight, so I’m trying to be a good role model and take my time with the fans. Because I just don’t want to be a good hockey player, I want to be a good person, too.”
As good as he was on the ice last season, scoring 10 goals in his first 10 NHL games on his way to winning the rookie-of-the-year award in a landslide, Pettersson knew he was being judged also on how he handled himself in front of the media and with fans.
The Pettersson Death Stare, a cold, penetrating glare towards reporters whose questions he didn’t like, became a thing. And while it delighted a lot of people on social media, it troubled the Swede.
He doesn’t want to be seen as rude or arrogant or frustrated. He knows people, unable to actually know him personally, will take his measure through the lenses of those unyielding cameras pointed at him.
There were lots of reasons for those stares, of course. He was a 19-year-old this time last year, speaking in a second language he is still learning, struggling to be precise in English while dealing with reporters on a scale to which he was unprepared.
Halfway through his rookie season, a reporter confronted Pettersson at his locker after another of those stares. The player didn’t say much at the time, but after the game that night, quietly sought out the reporter and apologized.
“I wasn’t handling media the way I wanted to handle it,” he said. “I was getting frustrated, getting angry maybe hearing the same questions a lot. But this is my job, and I love my job. That media want to talk to me, I see that as a good thing. I’m just trying to be the best person I can be with the media. That’s how I see it now.
“I think I’m more of a shy person. I see myself as a shy person. But I’m learning. I’m still young, but I’m learning to be in the spotlight and trying to be a person people can look up to.”
This is Elias Pettersson 2.0.
He admits he is pushing himself out of his comfort zone a little to be more engaging. He is already leading by example in almost everything he does on the ice. But it is no simple thing to navigate the complex culture of a dressing room in which everyone but rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes is older than he is.
Canuck veterans who were here when Pettersson arrived as a boy wonder, fresh off an MVP season in Sweden, universally rave about his respectfulness and humility.
“None of us in the room is pushing him to do anything he’s not comfortable with,” goalie Jacob Markstrom said. “He’s still young. A lot of people like to push young players when they come up – the captaincy thing and putting labels on them – and there’s no need for it. Let him play. You don’t have to force anything on anybody. The leadership Hank and Danny (Sedin) had all of those years, it’s textbook. Let your game speak. That’s the best way to lead a team.”
In that way, Pettersson is already a leader. He does not require a ‘C’ on his jersey to validate it. Nor is that letter appropriate for a player one month shy of his 21st birthday and whose season-opening game Wednesday in Edmonton was just his 72nd in the NHL.
The Canucks are expected to name Bo Horvat their captain before next Wednesday’s home-opener against the Los Angeles Kings. Horvat is 24 years old, starting his sixth NHL season and has been preparing for this responsibility since well before Henrik Sedin retired as captain in 2018.
Remember, Horvat, too, played for the Canucks at age 19 and towards the end of his rookie season became one of their best players.
“I wouldn’t say it’s awkward; I would say you have to be careful,” Horvat said of becoming a leader early on. “You don’t want to step on any toes. But at the same time, you want to be a good leader and you want to help your team win. What Petey’s done, same with Brock (Boeser) and when I came in, you respect the guys who have been in the league a long time. I think Petey’s been unbelievable at that.”
“A guy with his skill and his ability to control the game, guys are going to gravitate towards someone like that naturally,” goalie Thatcher Demko said. “I think that’s something he embraces as well. I got to know him a little better this camp, and it’s kind of cool to see him embracing that role.”
Pettersson’s conditioning smackdown on Day 1 of training camp was impressive enough that a bunch of teammates, hearing what the kid was doing on the ice, emerged from the dressing rooms to watch.
“It’s pretty impressive that he’s rookie of the year, then goes to the world championships and does really well there, then comes back and he’s the same kid,” defenceman Troy Stecher said. “You can tell he wants to be the best. I think everybody wants to be that, but it takes a pretty special talent to find that. He’s one of those special players.”
“I think Petey knows he’s going to be front and centre, knows he’s going to be the guy,” veteran centre Brandon Sutter said. “He just wants to win. That makes it easy in the room. I’ve played with great players. I played with Sid (Crosby) and (Evgeni) Malkin, Danny and Hank. Petey is the same way. He wants to be the best.”
“It’s kind of tricky, no question,” Pettersson said. “There’s a lot of different leadership. You can be a leader just by working hard – hit people, block shots. You can be a leader having all these talks. I see myself more as a leader by example, and I see myself as a team player. Whatever success I have with points or individual success, I don’t want to get treated differently because of that. It’s a team game. I want to win with this team.”