It’s hard to recognize the bustling Walnut Grove neighborhood of Langley from the time when Jake Virtanen was little. But he hasn’t changed.
He still loves to launch opponents into the boards, which are more resistant in the National Hockey League than they were in the basement of the family townhouse where he grew up in the commercial and residential hub just off the Trans-Canada Highway near 200th Street in Langley.
“We’d play mini-sticks downstairs and we’d break walls,” Virtanen, the 22-year-old winger for the Vancouver Canucks, recalled. “It was a finished basement. I threw my brother threw a closet once. That was toast. My brother threw me through a wall, snapped it in half. Brothers being brothers. A lot of walls were broken.”
“There were definitely some repairs that had to be done,” Rainer Virtanen said when asked about basement games between his sons, Jake and Stefan, who was four years older than his sibling. “We actually had to move the games outside. Jake, at a very young age, was able to shoot the ball very hard. He was a little toddler but he was whipping the ball at Stefan’s face. But no matter how many times we told them not to get serious, they always got serious.”
Hockey became the outlet for Jake’s athletic aggressiveness. Even before he was allowed to hit for his Langley Eagles minor-hockey teams, he hit.
One season in atom hockey, Virtanen managed to amass more than 100 penalty minutes, which in the context of league and era is every bit as impressive as Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz’s NHL-record 472 penalty minutes for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974-75.
“My dad kept telling me, ‘You’re not allowed to hit; you’ve got to wait,’” Virtanen said. “But I loved hitting.”
Rainer said: “I remember one particular day we were playing at Burnaby Winter Club. That would have been against Mathew Barzal’s team at the time. We didn’t have a chance against the Burnaby Winter Club. But they had a couple of kids that were playing aggressively, so Jake just went out there and threw an open-ice hit and went straight to the penalty box. And then as soon as he came out of the penalty box, he smoked the guy again and then went back to the penalty box. He just loved hitting.”
Jake learned to skate with his dad and grandpa at the Langley Sportsplex. He remembers pushing away the metal walker he was offered and just taking off on his own.
His dad enrolled him in skating lessons before starting him in hockey so, Rainer said, Jake was a strong skater from the time he began. Those two hockey elements from childhood, mobility and physicality, are what are allowing Virtanen to build his NHL career.
A sixth-overall draft pick from the Calgary Hitmen in 2014, Virtanen is halfway through his fourth professional season. His 11 goals in 45 games are already a new career high.
“The Canucks were my favourite team and I played hockey, so of course I wanted to make it to the NHL,” he said. “I played lacrosse, too, and rugby in school.
“In Grade 8, my gym teacher was the coach of the rugby team. My dad didn’t really want me to play rugby but he said if one of my buddies played, he’d let me play. So I asked all my hockey buddies: ‘Someone, please play.’ I always wanted to play on a school sports team. One of my buddies played but quit after one game, but I kept playing. We went to the provincials that year.”
By then, Virtanen was attending Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford. Seeking a little bigger home and a little more quiet, the Virtanens moved east up the Fraser Valley from Langley when Jake was in Grade 7. The Abbotsford Hawks became his minor hockey team until he went to Calgary and the Western Hockey League at age 16.
He said Langley, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend, still feels like home when he passes through and sees the Sportsplex or Dorothy Peacock Elementary.
“When you’re driving in Walnut Grove, you can see the elementary school from the road,” he said. “I always walked to school or rode my bike, so I know all the streets. There’s a lot of stuff that has changed, lots of new buildings. There used to be dirt tracks there, so lots has changed. But I still know where I am.”