ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — In the four NHL off-seasons since he burst upon the Vancouver Canucks straight out of college, Brock Boeser has nursed himself back from serious wrist and back injuries, gotten leaner and stronger, improved his foot speed, and continuously, relentlessly, obsessively worked on his shot.
But none of these changes may be as significant as the one Boeser unveiled this week at training camp: he cut his hair.
OK, it’s not Marine Corps short, nor Thatcher Demko short. You could still make a shampoo commercial with slow-motion footage of Boeser combing his hair.
But his wavy, blond locks are as short as they’ve been in years, jeopardizing Boeser’s nickname among fans as “The Flow.”
“Oh, there's flow,” Boeser insisted Saturday, removing his ball cap to prove there is still some volume up top. “It's just short flow.
“I cut it short just because I didn’t want to have to get another haircut for a while. It was pretty long over the summer, and then like two days before I left (Minnesota), I cut it the shortest it's been in a while.”
No one was more stunned than his stylist, who first cut the winger’s hair at a Great Clips in Burnsville, Minn., when Boeser was about 12 years old.
“She was shocked,” Boeser explained. “I said: ‘I'd like to take two inches off.’ She started off by taking an inch and a half. She didn’t trust me.”
The Canucks do.
Drafted in 2015 from the University of North Dakota, Boeser became one of the early building blocks in the Canucks’ rebuild when he scored four times in his first nine NHL games at the end of the 2016-17 season. He has 205 points in 244 games since then and, amid the chaos of last season in Vancouver, was the Canucks’ best forward, finishing with 23 goals and 49 points in 56 games.
Boeser was one of few players untouched by the COVID-19 outbreak that crushed the team in April, probably, he said, because he had contracted the virus last November during U.S. Thanksgiving back home.
At age 24 and about to start the final season of the three-year, $17.6-million bridge deal he signed during training camp two years ago, Boeser is already third in Canucks seniority behind captain Bo Horvat and veteran Brandon Sutter.
“That’s crazy,” Boeser said at the end of the team’s three-day training camp in Abbotsford. “I mean, I know it's Year 5 for me and that there have been two COVID years, but to be the third-longest tenured guy, it just shows how much we've turned over our team and gotten different guys in the lineup and into this organization.
“I'm pretty excited for this year and I'm pretty driven to have a strong year after last year and be more consistent. I think that's a big thing: consistency. I thought I had a pretty good year last year but there's some of those nights where you just feel off or feel you could be better for the team. That's something I've really been thinking about. If I can bring that game each and every night. ... I think that's going to help our team.”
Boeser has never seemed more important to the Canucks than he does right now, when his friends and foundational teammates Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are missing from camp, training together in Michigan while their agent, Pat Brisson, tries to negotiate new contracts with Vancouver general manager Jim Benning.
Boeser said he spoke Friday to his teammates, who were photographed together Saturday at the University of Michigan football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., about the time the Canucks were wrapping up camp.
“Obviously, it's tough for them but I'm happy they're skating together,” Boeser said. “I really haven't asked them too much about (their contracts), just letting them handle that by themselves. I'm not getting too nosey, just making sure that they're skating hard and they're going to be in shape when they come here. We've had three hard, hard days here and whenever they sign they need to come here and be ready to go.”
Boeser spent training camp practising on a new line with left winger Nils Höglander and centre Nic Petan, who showed well as a place-holder replacement for Pettersson at centre.
With first-line left winger J.T. Miller shifted to centre, a move that could survive a return by Pettersson, Höglander was promoted by coach Travis Green to the top unit.
Professional hockey players are excellent at focussing on their jobs — most are simply trying to earn or keep one — but the lineup holes left by Pettersson and Hughes will grow larger and darker the nearer the Canucks get to their season-opener on Oct. 13.
Green will take a young team to Spokane, Wash., to open the Canucks’ pre-season schedule Sunday against the Seattle Kraken, before dressing a more experienced lineup for Monday’s exhibition game against the Calgary Flames in Abbotsford.
“I think now when we start playing pre-season games and know they're not there, I think that's when we're going to start noticing it a bit more,” Boeser said of missing Pettersson and Hughes. “Obviously, it's tough not having them here because they're two of our best players and we want to build that chemistry (as a team), and coaches want to build that chemistry. Unfortunately, this is how it has to be, I guess.”
• The worst moment of training camp came in the final practice session Saturday when minor-league defenceman Brady Keeper suffered what appeared to be a serious injury to his left leg. Groaning in agony, Keeper lay on the ice for several minutes before being stretchered off and taken to hospital, his leg immobilized in a splint. The Canucks offered no initial details about his condition.
Keeper has played only two NHL games, but the Canucks wanted him in their organization badly enough that they lured the Florida Panther free agent to B.C. on a two-year deal with a one-way contract paying $762,500 U.S. annually. The 25-year-old from Cross Lake, Man., had a solid training camp and the chance to become an important depth piece on the right side of defence due to the continuing unexplained absence of Travis Hamonic.
• Like most coaches, Green usually chooses his words carefully when publicly assessing a young player, but was blunt when asked about former fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi and his camp: “I don’t think he did himself any favours.”
Juolevi, who spent last season with the Canucks, nearly required resuscitation at the end of Green’s conditioning skate-test on Thursday, and over three days was outplayed by Jack Rathbone and Brad Hunt in the battle for a left-side spot near the bottom of the Canucks’ defence.
• Although promising Russian rookie Vasily Podkolzin got a lot more attention, Belarusian draft pick Danila Klimovich had an eye-opening camp, showing there is already a lot more to his game than an ability to shoot the puck. The 18-year-old winger, selected 41st in July with Vancouver’s first pick, shone on a line with Matthew Highmore and Justin Dowling, another depth free-agent acquisition who has a chance to move up the depth chart.
• Despite his excellent rookie season, Höglander was frequently a target for the coaching staff last winter because the 20-year-old with limited English was the Canuck most likely to screw up drills during practice. Höglander seems to have outgrown this deficiency.
“He kind of knows our systems now so ... he's not messing up drills, so that's pretty big for Hogs,” Boeser joked. “I guess that's probably the biggest difference: he's not making us go again.”