Travis Green was going to be a star. Anyone who remembers him piling up points for the Spokane Chiefs at the end of the 1980s would have sworn it.
Green was a strong, rangy centre. Besides his size, the boy from Castlegar, B.C., had terrific hands and enough toughness to survive. It was only Green’s average skating that dropped him to the second round of the NHL draft in 1989, when the New York Islanders chose him 23rd overall — two picks after the first round in the “original” 21-team league.
That season, when he was 18, Green had 51 goals and 102 points in 72 games. The next season, 1989-90, Green amassed 60 goals and 128 points.
Then he went off to conquer the NHL. Except he didn’t.
Despite all that offensive talent, Green spent the next two and a half seasons in the American Hockey League, unable to crack a mediocre Islanders’ lineup.
And when he finally made the NHL, it wasn’t as an offensive dynamo but as a dependable, two-way centre who spent most of his career doing little things well somewhere in the middle of the lineup.
Green changed NHL teams six times. But by the time he finished with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2007, Green had logged 14 seasons and 970 games. He finished with 455 points, eclipsing 35 points only once in his last eight years.
It was a great career, but not the one for which Green was projected when he was drafted. As a young pro, he had to adapt or perish. Eventually, he flourished.
Green’s NHL tale is hardly unique, but it’s vitally important these days when talking about the trajectory of Vancouver Canuck sixth-overall draft pick Jake Virtanen. And there is ceaseless talk about Virtanen.
The kid from Abbotsford played in the NHL at 19, then played his way into the AHL at 20. He spent the final 65 games of last season in upstate New York, where Virtanen, a fast power forward who is supposed to be a scorer, managed only nine goals and 19 points.
This meagre total was greeted largely with alarm in Vancouver. In choosing Virtanen sixth in the 2014 draft, Canucks general manager Jim Benning passed on William Nylander (Maple Leafs), Nick Ehlers (Winnipeg Jets), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), Robby Fabbri (St. Louis Blues) and David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins). The other bruising power forward near the top of that draft, Nick Ritchie, went 10th to the Anaheim Ducks.
Compared to these players, Virtanen has been a disappointment so far.
Like Green, Virtanen may have to adapt. The advantage he has is that Green, who mentored Virtanen last season in Utica, is now his coach with the Canucks as the 21-year-old tries to regain entry to the NHL.
As much as anyone can, Green understands what Virtanen is going through.
“Thinking you’re ready for the league (and) you’re not,” Green says of his own mindset as a young player. “Looking back, you weren’t even close. I know as a young guy, I thought I was ready for the league right away. And looking back, if I would have played earlier, I’d have never played in the NHL.”
This is the over-riding message Green has been preaching to Virtanen. Learn the details of the game. Eat right, sleep right, train right, and be prepared. And don’t worry about trying to be a star; start with just trying to be an NHL player.
“When I was in Utica, he sat down with me every other day,” Virtanen says. “He talked to me lots. I heard a lot of stories about when he played.
“Being sent down there and learning from him, I think that was good for me. It was kind of similar to my situation, really. I learned a lot from him. I think that has transferred over in camp so far. I’ve had really good focus, a new mindset coming into camp. The goal is to make the team. Whatever it takes.”
Truly, the best thing Virtanen has going for him is Green, who agreed that his experiences as a player helps his relationship with Virtanen.
This is a player the Canucks’ must develop. Whether Virtanen turns into the brawny 30-goal scorer Benning hoped for, or develops into a third-line player who contributes 15 goals, kills penalties and provides a physical presence, no NHL team can afford to miss entirely on a sixth-overall pick.
Former coach Willie Desjardins had thinly-veiled criticism of Virtanen’s conditioning last fall. He reported to training camp at 229 pounds, which shouldn’t have surprised the Canucks because he trained under their watch all summer. But he also spent that summer in downtown Vancouver.
This summer, Virtanen lived close to home in the Fraser Valley. He hired a personal trainer and worked out in Chilliwack, where the real excitement happens only when the sweet corn comes in.
Virtanen is down to 215 pounds. He looks noticeably leaner and has been quick on his skates this week. He made a couple of strong moves to the net with the puck during the only scrimmage of training camp, on Thursday.
“Some guys on our team, they’re pretty skinny,” he says. “And some guys like me, I can just walk by a hotdog stand and gain five pounds. It’s really just diet and working out. You learn your body when you get older. When I was 18 or 19, I was like: ‘I’m still young, I’ll burn it off (whatever I eat), no problem.’”
Sounds like a sportswriter, except for the young part.
“Really, when I was growing up, I was always the go-to guy,” he says. “(Hockey) was easy for me. And then I had that adversity and it was different for me. I’d never been through that before.
“Being sent down wasn’t the worst thing. I got lots of minutes and learned from a great coach.”
Who knows exactly what Virtanen is going through.