Lind’s opportunity with Canucks a testament to his humbling path to NHL

Travis Green talks what he sees prospect Kole Lind bringing to the lineup in his NHL debut as the Vancouver Canucks take on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

VANCOUVER – In just under four months, Kole Lind has changed positions in hockey, changed leagues, had his nose badly broken, got a puppy, somehow avoided COVID-19 outbreaks that devastated his teams in both Utica and Vancouver, and Thursday made his NHL debut.

We can’t wait to see what happens to him in May.

“The whole year has just been a whirlwind for sure,” the 22-year-old told Sportsnet this week. “There’s not really any other way to put it. Obviously, this has been a difficult time for everyone and people have coped with it in different ways. I just want to be ready for whatever opportunity comes next.”

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Lind’s NHL opportunity with the Vancouver Canucks started Thursday in Toronto and will continue Saturday against the Maple Leafs when the forward from Shaunavon, Sask., doubles his career games-played.

Even his debut was unpredictable, as Lind was promoted mid-game to a top-six role alongside team captain Bo Horvat and finished with 17:12 of ice time. Lind was by far the best part about a 4-1 loss by the Canucks, who have been hobbled by their massive COVID outbreak at the start of April and the unplayable schedule it has left them.

But Lind’s surprising rise in that game reflects his ascendancy as a prospect after he followed a 95-point final season in junior with the Kelowna Rockets with a disappointing five-goal rookie campaign with the Utica Comets in 2018-19.

“People don’t generally understand the journey that these kids take sometimes and the humbling, the ups and the downs,” Utica general manager and Canucks player-development director Ryan Johnson said. “Trent Cull and the coaching staff in Utica did a phenomenal job, and the development group and the time we spend with these kids right out of the gate, everyone is extremely excited.

“From where Kole came from, some of the early struggles and the time he put in, to where he is now and the player and the person he has become, it’s been a true journey for him. He has earned this because he made a decision to put in the work.”

Nobody outside the Lind household, which includes Kole’s three hockey-playing siblings, was probably as excited on Thursday as Johnson.

He said the staff in Utica challenged Lind after his rookie season.

“He had to make a decision off ice,” Johnson explained. “Was he going to do the things to get himself stronger, to get the power in his legs to get where his pace needed to be? Was he going to spend the time, technically, on his stride and skating to help improve that area? He did both.

“There was a step-by-step evolution to his game. He bought in. I think last year was a really big step for him in going from maybe survival mode (in the American League) to being a really good, complementary piece to, this year, OK, now you’re going to be the guy. And meanwhile, he’s doing this by playing multiple positions, which shows versatility and confidence and an ability to adapt. He just kept adding all these little parts to his game.”

Lind improved dramatically last season, finishing with 14 goals and 44 points in 61 games while being asked near the end of the year to try playing centre.

The experimental move to that position, a weak point in the Canucks’ system, became permanent this season. Lind opened with five goals and eight points in eight AHL games before his nose was broken by a high stick on March 3.

Lind wasn’t in the lineup a week later when the Comets and Rochester Americans played again in a game that led to a coronavirus outbreak. His facial injury was serious enough – and the recovery period convenient during a time of mandatory travel quarantines – that the Canucks brought Lind to Vancouver for assessment.

“It was kind of crazy,” Lind recalled. “I ended up leaving for Vancouver, I think on a Saturday, and the guys in Utica first started testing positive on the Monday. I was obviously a little bit lucky to get out of there when I did. I got out of quarantine (in Vancouver) and was skating for like a week and then everything happened there, too, so yeah it was kind of crappy.”

Lind didn’t contract COVID-19 in either place, which at least makes him physically nearer to 100 per cent than most of the other Canucks. The game on Thursday was Lind’s first since he broke his nose.

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“I’ve learned a tonne down there,” he said. “I’ve kind of just taken that into my summer training every single year and worked as hard as I possibly could. I was pushing it to the limits every single summer. And, yeah, I think I’ve improved a lot and hopefully, I’m ready to play in the NHL here.

“I was trying to bring a lot more to the game than just scoring this year because, obviously, I want to make that next step and I’m going to need to bring more than just that to the table.”

Lind said he embraced the switch to centre this season. He credited Utica linemates Sven Baertschi and Sam Anas for helping him, and said playing in the middle forced him to be more engaged and stronger defensively. For now, Canucks coach Travis Green is using Lind on right wing.

“I think my versatility has been a big part of my game for a long time,” Lind said. “Playing in junior, I was playing both sides of wing and now, coming in here, I just want to be ready for whatever role they give me. Coming up through it all, I’ve always had that gritty and tenacious side to me, too. I’m definitely going to bring that to the table.”

“One of the things I like about Kole that maybe you can’t teach is he’s got a little bit of an agitator in him,” Johnson agreed. “He’s involved in the game physically and mentally. He likes to get under people’s skin, he likes to be in the game, be alive.”

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During his long spell between games, Lind’s girlfriend, Paige Sutherland, procured for the couple a Cavapoo puppy, a cross between a spaniel and poodle named Theo. Lind met Sutherland in Kelowna, but she and Theo are in her hometown of Dawson Creek, B.C.

On Monday, Lind posted a photo of Theo on his Twitter account with the question: “Most photogenic dog ever?”

He has also been inspired this spring by his little brother, Kalan’s, start as a Western Hockey League rookie in Red Deer. A first-round bantam draft pick, Kalan Lind, 16, has three points and 19 penalty minutes in 12 games for Brent Sutter’s Rebels.

“It’s been amazing for me, just getting to see him grow up and kind of follow in my footsteps,” Kole said. “I’m really proud of him and how he pushed through everything. It’s really inspiring for me.

“Even in the summertime, he’s seven years younger than me but he still tries to do things that I can do. Obviously, he’s not as strong as me, but whether we’re running or whatever it is, he’s always trying to beat me and I love that.”

The boys’ sisters, Taylor and Tenelle, both play university hockey. It’s a hockey-playing family, and now it has an NHL chapter.

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