VANCOUVER – We do not associate royalty with the Vancouver Canucks, but there have been kings, and most of them captained the National Hockey League team.
When Henrik Sedin handed Bo Horvat the captaincy in a ceremony before the Canucks’ home-opener Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings, it continued a noble line of ascension that runs nearly unbroken like a ribbon of gold through most of the team’s 50 years in the NHL.
Sedin was the captain encouraged and taught by Markus Naslund and Trevor Linden, who in turn was mentored as a young player by Stan Smyl, who arrived in the Canucks organization in 1978 just as the franchise’s original captain, Orland Kurtenbach, departed as coach.
But the transfer of power between Sedin and Horvat actually began years ago, on Dec. 17, 2015, before a morning skate in Philadelphia when Horvat was slowly suffocating amid a 27-game goal drought during a torturous sophomore season.
Henrik reassured Horvat that he and his brother, Daniel, had also suffered epic slumps and self-doubt, and that the then 20-year-old was a good player who just needed to stay positive and keep working towards better days.
“It was an optional morning skate and there was only him and me a few others on the ice,” Henrik recalled Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t think much of it at the time; I just wanted to talk to him and see how he was doing.
“I see a lot of young guys come up. Some guys are there just to play hockey and do everything they can. And there are some guys that have a bigger picture; you can tell there is something more in them than just being a hockey player. You could see Bo was like that.”
That shoulder-to-shoulder circumnavigation of the ice in Philadelphia was a seminal moment for Horvat and, it turns out, a transformative one for the Canucks. That’s what leadership looks like.
“I think about it all the time,” Horvat said before his coronation. “To have somebody of that stature come up to me and say he’s been there and actually done a lot worse, to expose yourself like that to bring somebody else up… I’ll never forget that. I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”
“Bo always mentions the Sedins, always,” his dad, Tim Horvat, told Sportsnet. “He still does to this day. I’ll go out on a limb and say that after that first training camp in 2013, when (former coach) John Tortorella said he wasn’t sure Bo would ever play in the NHL because he’s not fast enough and isn’t in great shape, Bo watched the Sedins and I think they actually changed his whole mindset. I remember Bo saying: ‘I’ve got to work harder. I watch these guys and I know I’ve got to work harder.’”
Horvat’s skating and conditioning improved dramatically — as they had for the Sedins a decade earlier — and the centre from Rodney, Ont., learned to lead by example. Again, just like the Sedins.
“Playing behind (Henrik) has made me the player I am now,” Horvat, who is now 24, said a few months before the Sedins retired 18 months ago. “And the way he handles himself in the community, and all that stuff, and seeing how much he brings to this organization, it’s incredible to watch and it makes you want to be better as a player and a person.”
This is the Sedins’ legacy.
The only team Horvat captained before the Canucks was Team Ontario at the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. That team included Max Domi, Aaron Ekblad and Darnell Nurse, among several other future NHLers, and won a bronze medal in Windsor, Ont.
Former Canucks general manager Mike Gillis drafted Horvat in 2013 — ninth overall out of the powerhouse London Knights junior program — after trading emerging goaltending star Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils to acquire the pick.
“Honestly, I was sick to my stomach,” Tim Horvat said. “Everyone was so excited for him and I was, too — don’t get me wrong. But I thought the ramifications for this kid are massive. Not only are you going to a Canadian market, but you got traded for a No. 1 goaltender. So that put extra pressure on the kid. But Bo said: ‘Not to worry, dad, I will show them.’ That’s exactly what he said.
“I read what people were saying about him: Can’t skate, doesn’t put up numbers. I thought: Oh, boy, just give him some time.”
Horvat has soared beyond projections that he might develop into a third-line NHL centre, a checking guy with a low offensive ceiling.
His points-per-game have improved in each of his five NHL seasons, and last year Horvat finished with 27 goals and 61 points despite playing with 30 different combinations of wingers.
With Calder Trophy-winner Elias Pettersson starting his second season in Vancouver, Horvat won’t rise beyond the second-line centre spot for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t lessen the importance to the Canucks of Horvat, who has grown up in the NHL playing against the opposition’s best players.
Remember, Ryan Kesler won a Selke Trophy in Vancouver as the second-line centre behind Henrik Sedin when the Canucks were the best team in the league.
“He’ll say something in the dressing room, but Bo’s not a rah-rah guy,” his dad said. “He just wants to do it on the ice. He knows he’s got great players around him. He knows there are a lot of leaders in that room. Bo just wants to lead by example.”
Like great leaders do.
“They choose captains because of who you are,” Henrik Sedin said. “That’s why they didn’t name a captain right away; they wait and see what kind of person a guy is and how he handles different situations. That’s why they picked Bo.
“It’s always tough to see where young guys will end up. Where he is right now, if he ends up being this kind of player (for the rest of his career), that’s plenty. But he could take other steps for sure. Bo has all the intangibles to become something great.”