VANCOUVER – The last time there were fans inside Rogers Arena to scream for – or at – the Vancouver Canucks, Quinn Hughes was three-quarters of the way through his rookie season.
Just re-signed to his second contract, Hughes is starting his third year in the National Hockey League. He was part of the crowd Sunday when 9,108 fans saw with their own eyes, in person, the Canucks beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 in a pre-season game.
“You guys actually have no idea how much better it is, honest to God,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “Not only just atmosphere-wise, but. . . it just brings more life to the building and brings more life to our team. Me especially, I love playing in front of people and I think it brings the best out of me and I think it brings the best out of anybody that's on the ice, so it's just a relief to have people back on the stands.”
The announced crowd was 50 per cent of capacity for hockey at Rogers Arena. There hadn’t been more than a couple of dozen fans at a Canucks home game since the NHL abruptly shut down for the coronavirus two days after the team beat the New York Islanders 5-4 in a shootout on March 10, 2020.
Hughes and Elias Pettersson, the other Canucks star whose re-signing was finally announced by the team on Sunday, watched the game as spectators. They’re expected to practise on Monday.
“I can't wait,” Pettersson said of playing in front of fans. “I mean, last year. . . I forget last year, but I'm just excited to play in front of people. I didn't realize how much the fans make a difference until last year, so I'm really excited to have fans back in the stadium.”
RETURN TO PLAY
Pettersson and Hughes are expected to skate Monday on a team day off, then practise Tuesday and Wednesday before a decision is made on their readiness for Thursday’s pre-season game in Edmonton.
The Canucks open their regular season against the Oilers on Oct. 13, which means Pettersson and Hughes have nine days to get ready after missing the first 11 days of training camp and pre-season.
“We'll monitor them, just like we do with every player,” coach Travis Green said after Sunday’s game. “I mean, it's a fine line between going too hard and catching up. They've got a lot of catching up to do, so they're going to have to be pushed. But they know that; I'm not worried about it.”
With Vancouver’s final three pre-season games this week, starting Tuesday at home against the Seattle Kraken, there still appears to be deep fields racing for the final spots on the roster.
At forward, where the Canucks will start the season without injured fourth-line penalty-killers Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter, experienced pros Nic Petan, Justin Dowling, and Phil Di Giuseppe are pushing incumbents Zack MacEwen and Matthew Highmore. Rookie winger Vasily Podkolzin, who played just 10:07 on the fourth line Sunday, still has to prove he is ready for the NHL. Veteran Alex Chiasson, who is on a tryout, is still in the mix, and minor-leaguers William Lockwood and Jonah Gadjovich may be, too.
On defence, Jack Rathbone appears to have the edge over Olli Juolevi and Brad Hunt in the battle for the third spot on the left side. With Travis Hamonic out indefinitely for personal reasons, depth on the right side of the blue line will be tested. The final spot seems like veteran Luke Schenn’s to lose, but Madison Bowey and Kyle Burroughs are among the players pushing him. Green could also move Hunt over from the left side.
Team building is not all science, not all tactical. It’s also about finding players who want to play for each other.
Green should have been pleased late in the third period when new Canucks workhorse Oliver Ekman-Larsson charged into a scrum as teammate Tanner Pearson was getting slightly roughed up. Horvat, Pearson’s linemate, then stepped in and exchanged gloved half-punches with the Jets’ Evgeny Svechnikov.
Asked what has impressed him most about Ekman-Larsson’s two pre-season games, Green said: “Probably the intensity level that he plays with. I think both games, he's played well, and his intensity level is probably higher than I knew it was. You don't really know the player until you coach him, but he looks energized. He looks hungry to play, hungry to win.”
Ekman-Larsson led Vancouver with 24:13 of ice time.
Lockwood, the speedy second-year pro out of the University of Michigan, led the Canucks with five hits and one chipped tooth. He lost part of a front digit when accidentally high-sticked in the second period by Riley Nash.
“I had braces when I was younger, too, so it's kind of going to waste now,” Lockwood said. “But that's the first chipped tooth I've had.”
Makes him look like a professional hockey player.
“Yeah,” he said, “I might just leave it.”