Picture yourself as a young Canucks fan playing road hockey. When you ran down the street with the ball on your stick, who did you pretend to be?
If you were like most hockey fans, you imagined yourself as the best player on your favourite team. If you’re in your mid-20’s, perhaps you imagined yourself as Markus Naslund, loading up a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle or Todd Bertuzzi, powering your way in front of the net. An older generation might have imagined themselves to be Stan Smyl or Thomas Gradin.
Fans of my generation imagined themselves to be Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, blazing down the ice at full speed with the puck on a string, speeding past helpless defenders.
Jake Virtanen grew up as a Canucks fan, playing road hockey in the streets of Abbotsford. He was four years old when the Sedins played their first season in the NHL. He was 14 during the 2011 playoffs.
“I grew up watching them my whole life,” said Virtanen after the Canucks’ win over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. “It’s always been my dream to play with them.”
Virtanen is living out the dream of many young Canucks fans who grew up watching the Sedins become two of the best players in the NHL, but it’s a very different dream compared to past generations. The dream previously was to be the best player; for young Sedin fans, it was to play with them.
How could you imagine yourself to be a Sedin? They are an inseparable pair. Which Sedin would you be? Perhaps if you had a brother, particularly a twin brother, you could pretend to be both, but there was a different opportunity for the imagination created by the Sedins.
For my generation, Pavel Bure was essentially the best possible hockey player you could imagine. He had the speed, the hands, the shot, and, when the situation called for it, the physicality. He was everything you could possibly want to be in a hockey player. Your imagination couldn’t conjure up a better player.
During the Sedin era, however, the imaginary player was actually imaginary: the Sedins’ perfect winger.
It has been a constant conversation for Canucks fans for the past decade or so: who should play with the Sedins? For a while, fans imagined their perfect winger would be a big, tough, power forward — preferably a right-hand shot — who could not only set up in front of the net to finish off the Sedins’ passing plays, but also protect them from cheapshots and scrums.
After Anson Carter left, the Canucks brought in players like Taylor Pyatt and Steve Bernier, who they thought fit the “big with skill” paradigm they were looking for. They didn’t quite work and the search continued.
What ended up working best with the Sedins was speedy, two-way wingers, who could forecheck hard and retrieve the puck, but also had the hockey IQ and skill to contribute on the cycle. Alex Burrows shocked everyone by being the Sedins’ best linemate, despite continual efforts to find someone else to replace him. Eventually, Jannik Hansen proved to have similar chemistry with the twins.
You can imagine a young Canucks fan hitting the street or the ice and imagining themselves as the perfect Sedin winger. Particularly a big, speedy, right-hand shot making waves in Abbotsford youth hockey.
In many ways, Virtanen represents an amalgamation of everything the Canucks management and fans thought the Sedins needed for so many years and what they actually needed. Virtanen is a big, tough power forward with a great shot, but also a speedy, two-way winger who can retrieve the puck on the forecheck. It remains to be seen if he has the hockey IQ to contribute on the cycle, but he otherwise seems ideal.
The Sedins forged their ideal linemate from the fires of Vancouver’s metaphorical Mount Doom. The Canucks crashed and burned in the 2013-14 season, giving them the sixth overall pick to use on a player seemingly crafted to the Sedins’ exact needs.
The only problem is that it took a generation for that player to grow. He was never going to arrive in time to play with the Sedins during their peak years. It was almost inevitable that a player like Jake Virtanen would be created, but the cruelty of time meant he’d always arrive too late.