Canucks' Hoglander thriving in Vancouver despite isolating rookie experience

NHL profile photo on Vancouver Canucks player Nils Hoglander, from Sweden, at a game against the Calgary Flames in Calgary, Alta. on Feb. 17, 2021. (Larry MacDougal / CP)

VANCOUVER – Not only has he a dream job, Nils Hoglander has a dream commute to go with it.

Each morning the Vancouver Canucks are home, the Swedish rookie leaves his 22nd-floor apartment that overlooks the city, gets in an elevator and rides down to the bottom of the Rogers Arena. That’s his commute. No car, no transit, no rain.

This is rink-rat heaven.

“Taking an elevator to get to the rink would be like a dream for Nils,” Chris Abbott, the Canadian general manager of Hoglander’s former team, Rogle BK, told Sportsnet. “You’ll have to turn the lights out to get him to leave. You'll never find a guy who wants to be on the ice more. I'd be out for a run and I'd see him skating on rollerblades with a bunch of kids in the middle of nowhere. He loves being around the rink and loves his teammates, and I think that goes a long way for him to focus on what he needs to do to stay in the NHL.”

Thirty games into Hoglander’s National Hockey League career, it’s difficult to recall how much uncertainty there was about his readiness for the Canucks when the winger from Bocktrask, in Northern Sweden, arrived in December for training camp. He turned 20 on Dec. 20 while in quarantine.

Hoglander was a sensation at camp, seizing the top-six opening created by Tyler Toffoli’s free-agent departure to Montreal. Hoglander impressed not only with his speed and skill, but his tenacity and combativeness in puck battles, which were surprising for a "skill" rookie who is only five-foot-nine and 185 pounds.

Just like young cornerstones Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, Hoglander scored in his Canucks debut, a 5-3 opening-night win over the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 13, and has been a top-six fixture since then.

“His willingness to compete and compete in hard areas, that’s probably the thing that stands out to me,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “There’s no way he could win puck battles the way he does if he wasn’t brave and wasn’t playing without fear, which is easier said than done. The skill and the plays he makes with the puck, those are the easy things to see. But his nature, that competitiveness, is probably the biggest thing for me.”

Hoglander has five goals and 11 assists in 30 games, numbers that don’t convey his full impact. Although he has been less noticeable in some recent games — his ice time of 13:04 in Wednesday's 5-1 loss to the Canadiens was Hoglander's lowest since January — he still leads all Canucks regulars in play-driving with a shots-for percentage of 51.77 and corresponding expected-goals-for rate of 52.14.

What makes Hoglander’s unexpected season especially remarkable is that he is thriving professionally while personally living in isolation as a 20-year-old far from home in an unfamiliar city during a global pandemic.

The tower where he and a handful teammates live was built by Canucks managing owner Francesco Aquilini’s family company. But Hoglander lives on his own, prevented by both NHL and B.C. provincial health guidelines from hanging out with teammates away from the rink, going out for meals or getting treated to a home-cooked dinner by a veteran teammate.

It was adorable last season that Calder Trophy runner-up Quinn Hughes started calling elder Canucks teammate and mentor Chris Tanev “Dad.” But for most young, single players beginning their NHL careers far from home, the reality is teammates are their family.

“Usually we have guys over for dinner and get them to hang out with our kids a bit and it kind of gives them a break from what they've been doing,” Canucks centre Brandon Sutter, 32, said last month during a Zoom call. “We just haven't had the chance this year.

“That part's tough, no question about it. Fortunately, I have a family and my wife and kids, so I go home and I'm doing my normal stuff. For our young guys, they're more or less hanging out by themselves all the time and that's tough. It's just the world we're in right now.”

Without fans and ticket revenue, and facing millions in losses this season, the Canucks as a company are operating with a skeleton staff – a fraction of the number of their usual full-time employees.

But assistant general manager Chris Gear said the team is still doing everything it can to support Hoglander and other young Canucks. Team services manager Mike Brown is the first point of contact for players. Hockey operations manager Cheryl Loveseth and travel co-ordinator Cathie Moroney are also available to help, Gear said, as is the assistant GM.

“You have young kids that have needs,” Gear said. “They don’t know everything and you do want to give them as much support as you can. This year is harder, but we’re trying to give them as much support as we would in any normal year. We do all their meals. Whether it’s game day or practice day, they come in and have breakfast. After practice, there’s lunch. We have packaged meals that they can take with them for dinner.

“I think they know that we’re here for them. When Goldy (former Canuck Nikolay Goldobin) was around, he was often up in our offices needing something. I remember I negotiated his way out of his vehicle lease in San Jose. He couldn’t bring his car across the border, so I said I’d take care of it. There’s always weird things that come up that we try to help them with.”

Hoglander appears to be low maintenance.

He moved away from home at age 17 to play for Rogle in Angelholm, near Denmark at the far southern tip of Sweden, where he lived in an apartment provided by his team. After seven goals and 14 points in 50 games as a Swedish Hockey League rookie, Hoglander was chosen by the Canucks in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft.

Eighteen months later, he was in Vancouver. To stay, apparently.

“Of course, it's a different season this year without fans,” Hoglander told Sportsnet. “You can't go to restaurants and that stuff. But every time I go to the rink and play and practise, I enjoy it and have fun. It's my dream to play here, and I'm happy to be here.

“Back in Sweden, it's much more defence play and you don't get so much (scoring) chances. The NHL is more offensive play. I feel better on a small rink with my quickness. The small areas, working to get the puck and being closer to the net, I think the smaller rink is better for me.”

Hoglander said he is accustomed to living on his own. He misses the camaraderie of teammates away from the rink, but spends his afternoons FaceTiming his family and friends in Sweden. His mom, Maria, is a teacher and his dad, Anders, a professional test driver for auto-makers.

“Cool job,” Hoglander said.

He also spends a lot of time with friends and teammates playing video games online. Call of Duty is his favourite, and Pettersson and Canuck Adam Gaudette are regular gamers, he said.

“Petey is a good friend to me. It’s nice to have him in the team,” Hoglander said. “We were at Timra together (in the Swedish second division), but Petey played with the older guys and I played with the younger guys so I didn’t know him.”

Asked what his typical pandemic non-game day is like, Hoglander said: “I show up one-and-a-half hours before practice, get breakfast at the rink. Lunch at the rink after practice. Then I go back home and maybe play some video games with my friends, talk with my family. You can go out and take walks and go in the city and look around. Vancouver is a beautiful city to live in, so I enjoy it. The restaurants are open but it's best if we stay home and order food or cook some food at home. But I can go out and it’s beautiful. I can walk in the city, walk by the water. Stanley Park is beautiful.”

“We try to check in with him every now and then,” Green said. “Is he getting out, going for walks? What are those guys doing with their time? I think each player is a little bit different. But Nils, my feeling is he's fine. He loves hockey, loves coming to the rink. If you let him skate every day, he would. He's a happy kid, and he's doing pretty well.”

Heading into Saturday’s home game against the Edmonton Oilers, Hoglander is eighth in scoring among NHL rookies. It will probably take one of the NHL’s hot young goalies to challenge Calder Trophy front-runner Kirill Kaprizov, who has 20 points in 24 games for the Minnesota Wild, but will also soon be 24 years old and spent the last six seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Hoglander will be in the NHL for a while. He has taken advantage of an opportunity at forward that wouldn’t have been available to him on a lot of better teams, and is another potential core piece for the Canucks as they try to build out their lineup.

“He is a player — and you don't see it with every player — he just has this passion for the game and the enjoyment that he gets from playing and being on the ice,” Abbott, the Rogle GM, said. “I've seen a lot of guys head over that way that aren't as prepared, but I thought that he had a lot of what it was going to take to be a fit there in Vancouver right away. I was quite confident we weren't going to see him back.”

“I am happy every day to be there,” Hoglander said.

Every day.

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