VICTORIA – Unable to crush Bo Horvat last season, the Vancouver Canucks should soon put him out of his misery and just name him captain.
That title has been vacant since Henrik Sedin retired 17 months ago, and the National Hockey League team has used the time since then to test Horvat, the 24-year-old captain-in-waiting, and see if he would buckle.
Horvat has been challenged physically and mentally.
Last season, coach Travis Green coddled his best two-way player by providing Horvat 30 different combinations of linemates. Thirty! The centre played at least 100 even-strength minutes with 11 wingers, which is impressive because only eight dress for any game.
Still, Horvat did not break. He didn’t even complain – even when Green invited Horvat into the coach’s office to vent. Instead, the first-round pick from London, Ont., merely set new career-highs with 27 goals and 61 points and led by example every night.
Somehow, Horvat maintained enough arm strength to shoot the puck while Green was sending him out to take an NHL-high 2,018 faceoffs – at least 500 more than all but 10 other players.
In the community, Horvat was equally unprotected. With the captaincy open and Horvat the popular and obvious choice to get the job, the player had to stickhandle questions about the “C” every time he went out.
At restaurants, the grocery store, pet shop and the park, the question to him from fans was always the same.
“After ‘hi,’ it’s basically the first thing everyone says,” Horvat admitted during the Canucks’ weekend training camp.
“‘Have a great year, and hopefully you’re wearing the ‘C.’ It’s overwhelming actually.
“It’s crazy, the support I’ve been getting. At the same time, I’m not going around saying I want to be the captain or anything. So I just say, ‘We’ll see,’ and kind of brush it off that way.”
The Canucks must stop this cruelty. Why isn’t the NHL Players’ Association protecting Horvat?
Fortunately, help is here.
His name is J.T. Miller.
The power forward, acquired in a June trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning, skated with Horvat through camp and should provide stability and ability alongside the beleaguered centre when the Canucks’ regular season starts Oct. 2 in Edmonton.
The Canucks play split-squad pre-season games against the Calgary Flames on Monday.
“I know he sucks to play against, and I think that’s one of the highest compliments you can pay to a player,” Miller said of getting to know Bo.
“He’s hard to play against. Whether that’s putting the puck in the net or toe-dragging you or winning the one-on-one battles, that can mean a lot of things. He brings a lot of that to the table.
“He’s an identity guy. I haven’t played with these guys, but you just know when Bo’s going, others will follow. He’s a leadership guy.”
Canucks general manager Jim Benning reiterated Sunday that coach Travis Green and staff will monitor the pre-season and decide before the opener whether to name a captain for this season.
But our election desk is already calling it for Horvat.
It is clear how the organization is leaning.
“Bo’s a mature person, a mature player,” Benning said. “I know all his teammates respect him for the way he handles himself on a day to day basis, the habits he has and how conducts himself on a day to day basis. For me, he’d be the guy.”
For everyone, he’d be the guy.
“I’ve been saying this for a long time: it doesn’t matter if I’m wearing a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ or anything like that,” Horvat said. “If it did happen, of course, I’d be happy. But I wouldn’t change my game or the way I am as a person. I do feel I’m ready for it.”
He’s also ready for regular linemates. After a February trade from Pittsburgh, Tanner Pearson scored nine times in 19 games playing with Horvat at the end of last season. Although Pearson practised on a different line at camp, it’s easy to imagine Pearson-Horvat-Miller becoming a thing.
A pretty good thing, too.
“It would be great; I’m not going to lie,” Horvat said of regular linemates.
“Obviously, last year with injuries and stuff, playing with pretty much everybody on every combination you could think of, was tough. It’s tough to get chemistry. But I take it as a compliment more than a slap on the face. Of course, you want to play with Brock (Boeser). Of course, you want to play with Petey (Elias Pettersson). You want to play with top-six guys all the time.
“At the same time, it’s rewarding when you play with everybody and you’re still able to put up numbers and help other guys take their game to the next level, too. Obviously, when you play with more offensive guys, you’re going to get more points.”
Last season, third- and fourth-line centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle missed 81 games between them, which is partly why Horvat took so many faceoffs and had ever-changing linemates.
“I feel like I’ve definitely matured as player, just going through the things I’ve been through the last three or four years,” Horvat said. “I’ve played roles I wasn’t used to playing, basically just getting thrown in there. It was either a sink or swim kind of thing.”
Mostly, he swam like a fish. Like a great, big Orca with a “C” on him.