With gut-churning conviction, Conor Garland pursues Canucks’ top winger role

Watch as Dan Murphy and Iain MacIntyre discuss what the biggest concern is not having Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes to start Canucks' training camp, and who will be Bo Horvat's line mates this season.

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – Those years running cross-country for the Dexter Southfield School near Boston came up big Thursday for Conor Garland. So did breakfast.

The Vancouver Canucks’ new winger knew when it was time to puke. And as he was warned by knowing teammates, that time would be on the opening day of training camp during coach Travis Green’s notorious session-ending conditioning skate when players are challenged to complete four gut-churning intervals in 40 seconds or less.

Olli Juolevi lay in the corner of the ice like he was dead. Garland merely felt that way, on his knees behind the net emptying the contents of his stomach beneath the dismayed eyes of arena workers holding scrapers and possibly wondering whether their wages were commensurate with their duties.

Until he discovered the wonders of Gravol, then left the Canucks as a free agent before last season, former Vancouver defenceman Troy Stecher wore his vomit – not quite literally, but it was close – like a badge of honour. Stecher literally skated hard enough to make himself sick.

On Thursday, so did Garland.

“Something I value. . . is to be a pace-setter in practice, somebody who practises hard,” Garland, the 25-year-old winger, explained afterward as he tried gently to rehydrate. “Today, I tried to kind of go as hard as I could the whole time. And that last (interval) kind of got me.

“I ate too big a breakfast. I just ate too much. It’s not like it’s a big deal. Sometimes I try to let it happen. I used to run cross country, and sometimes you let it happen. (Throwing up) makes you feel better rather than feeling like crap all day. So I feel better know.”

He didn’t look it.

But the Canucks are feeling better since acquiring Garland as a centrepiece in the July blockbuster trade that also brought Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the defenceman’s giant contract from the Arizona Coyotes.

At five-foot-eight, Garland is a very big deal to Vancouver. His abrasive, buzzsaw style, coupled with an extreme level of skill and shiftiness, can induce nausea in opponents.

When he signed a five-year, $24.75 million contract four days after the trade, Garland was confirmed as another piece of the Canucks’ young core. The Scituate, Mass., native is the kind of player you hate to play against, love to play with.

Centre Bo Horvat hoped to play with Garland, but on Day 1 of training camp converted winger J.T. Miller was the winning centre, getting both Garland and talented rookie Vasily Podkolzin on his line.

Horvat skated with regular left-wing partner Tanner Pearson and right winger Zack MacEwen, who had one goal and one assist in 34 games last season and will have to battle throughout the pre-season just to keep his spot on the National Hockey League roster.

The rookie right winger who Horvat broke in last season, Nils Hoglander, has been promoted to the top line, opposite winger Brock Boeser.

“I must be a graduating class or something like that,” Horvat smiled. “No matter where everybody fits in the lineup, everybody can play anywhere, which is kind of nice to have this year.”

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But it would be nice for Horvat, who helped Boeser score 29 goals in 2017-18 before losing the Calder Trophy runner-up to Elias Pettersson’s line (if you haven’t heard, Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes are unsigned restricted free agents and not at camp), to get a superior scorer on his right wing.

Garland had 12 goals and 39 points in 49 games last season and, with just 164 NHL games played, should continue improving.

“I skated with him twice before camp and he was crazy, like, skilled,” Horvat said. “His elusiveness, his agility, how he spins off guys and gets open is pretty crazy. He’s tough to hit. People don’t understand how good he is and how fast he is and his offensive skill just because of where he played. Coming here, I think he’s definitely going to open up a lot of eyes.”

Ekman-Larsson said Wednesday that Garland was Arizona’s best forward “by far.”

It’s not a terribly high bar, but the Coyotes do have Clayton Keller and 900-point NHL scorer Phil Kessel.

Keller was drafted seventh-overall in 2016, the year after the Coyotes selected Garland 123rd in his second season of draft eligibility. Garland spent two-and-a-half years in the American Hockey League before earning his NHL opportunity in Arizona.

“My dad used to always say if I played bad or something, kind of his dig at me was, ‘You act like you’ve arrived or something?’” Garland said when asked about earning his career. “So yeah, he kind of instilled into me that you’ve never really made it. For me, hockey is more about just how good can I get? How good can I be as a player? To get that contract, you know, of course it means a lot that the Canucks trusted me and that gives me confidence. But if I settled there, what am I? A guy who played 160 games in the NHL. That doesn’t mean anything to me.

“My goal is to be one of the top wingers in the league. And, of course, that’s a lofty goal and there’s a lot of great players in the league. But I try to take lessons from each skate, each game and try to get better each time. I look at the trajectories of some guys, Brad Marchand and Martin St. Louis. . . guys like that who you hope to be like one day. They kind of had the same start as me and kind of took off around 27 or 28. I just think if I keep getting better each day, then I’ll be able to reach my potential somehow.”

He’ll sacrifice a lot more than breakfast to get there.

ICE CHIPS

● Horvat practised fully after missing Wednesday’s weigh-in with what he believes was a minor bout of food poisoning.

● Green offered no comment further to the team’s statement on social media that defenceman Travis Hamonic is missing from camp due to “a personal matter.” Hamonic’s absence may be vaccination-related.

● General manager Jim Benning stated unequivocally on Wednesday that the entire Canucks organization with be “100 per cent” vaccinated against COVID-19 by the start of the regular season.

● Ekman-Larsson was paired with fellow newcomer Tucker Poolman, while Juolevi appeared to be ahead of Jack Rathbone on the blue-line depth chart.

● Nic Petan was the placeholder-centre for Pettersson, practising between wingers Boeser and Hoglander.

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