The Island, by climate and culture, is better suited to sporting pursuits that include running shoes, pedals, sails, Speedos or oars. That was evident last year at London.
But such is the tentacle reach of hockey in this country that even the year-round summer-sport hub of Canada has numerous and varied connections to the starting weekend of the abbreviated 2013 National Hockey League season that goes beyond just being a part of Canuck Nation.
Some of those opening-weekend Island stories are bittersweet.
The 2012 Stanley Cup banner will be raised to the rafters of the Staples Center, although Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell of Port McNeill will have to watch it on the limp following knee surgery — with no time frame set for the veteran’s return.
Island players well-represented on NHL squads
And what’s in that sea air in Port McNeill? The tiny north Island community has become almost as well-known for producing hockey players as it is for its forestry and fishing. Another Port McNeill player in the NHL, defenceman Clayton Stoner, is with the Minnesota Wild.
Opening weekend is also bittersweet for Jamie Benn of Central Saanich, the 23-year-old all-star power forward who is emerging as the cornerstone of the Dallas Stars franchise. He would rather be in Dallas than practising by his lonesome in Victoria — getting company by skating with the Victoria Royals junior team — while his agent and Stars management continue their negotiations as the season begins.
This is a matter of tremendous urgency as opening season unrolls in Dallas. Benn is of utmost importance to the Stars’ future. And the Canadian national team’s, too. If the NHL participates in the 2014 Winter Olympics, look for Benn to be there to give the Island its lone representative at Sochi after having a whopping 48 athletes in the more Island-friendly environment of the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
Jamie’s brother Jordie Benn, however, skated in Stars camp looking for a spot on the opening-weekend roster. That is a story in itself of getting to the NHL level almost by sheer willpower. Jordie Benn, older by a year than his brother, captained the Victoria Grizzlies in junior before jumping to the pros with the hometown ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings. But few even remotely saw the NHL in Jordie’s future.
Yet his quiet determination — which began to be forged in those ball-hockey games with his brother and friends that went long into the Central Saanich nights on a neighbour’s tennis court — has him on the doorstep of the Show on opening weekend in the Lone Star State.
Up in the shadow of the Rockies, if you can’t see Islanders on opening weekend, you’re simply not looking hard enough.
The Colorado Avalanche blueline looks to be well stocked with Victorians. Day-in-day-out regular Avs defenceman Ryan O’Byrne, a towering physical product of the Racquet Club and junior Victoria Salsa (now Grizzlies) and Nanaimo Clippers, will likely be joined on the Colorado defence by rising rookie Tyson Barrie out of the Juan de Fuca organization.
“I’m really excited,” said O’Byrne, whose Avs opened at home against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday and are in Minnesota tonight.
“Obviously, nine months is a long time to be off, but my time in Florida with the Everblades [of the ECHL] during the lockout really helped and I feel I’m in game shape already and that has given me peace of mind that I’m ready to go.”
While O’Byrne is a stick-to-the-basics, stay-at-home rearguard, Barrie is undersized but highly mobile, as attested by his 27 points in 36 games during the lockout for the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League.
“Tyson has got the package,” said O’Byrne.
Whether Barrie can stick with the Avs at the age of 21 will be the question in this short season when tested veterans will be more highly valued than unproven prospects.
'This season is going to be quick, fast and tough'
An Island defenceman who looks ready to stick is San Jose Sharks rookie Matt Irwin from Brentwood Bay, a 25-year-old who played junior in Nanaimo for the Clippers and collegiately in the NCAA at UMass-Amherst. The six-foot-two blueliner has paid his dues in the minors the past three years.
“Matt was a skinny, gangly kid when he came to us,” said Bill Bestwick, who recruited Irwin out of the Saanich Peninsula and coached him in Nanaimo on the Clippers.
“He didn’t take hockey seriously at the time. Matt was a typical teenager and just loved the game and played it. But he could hammer the puck and was offensively gifted. Suddenly he realized: ‘;Hey, I’m not so bad.’ ”
One of the Island-related NHL stories on opening weekend is a homecoming.
Vancouver Canucks defenceman John Garrison, who also played junior hockey for Bestwick on the Nanaimo Clippers, is living the dream of playing in his home province and on the NHL team he grew up cheering for as a kid.
“[Garrison] is very impressive personally and very humble,” said Bestwick, now coach of the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL, after his many years on the Nanaimo bench.
“He was so cordial with our [Nanaimo] fans. Physically, John is blessed with size, athleticism and skating ability. And he has the mind and IQ to adapt to this level of play.”
Bestwick has additional connections to this opening NHL weekend, with other Nanaimo Clipper alumni Colin Greening of the Ottawa Senators and Tanner Glass of the Stanley Cup-fancied Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Colin will make a strong impression to start the season in Ottawa while Tanner is always one of the most popular players in the dressing room,” said Bestwick.
Victoria Grizzlies graduate-forward Tyler Bozak gamely continues his career with the never-ending saga of misery that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This will be a short and to-the-point season.
Just ask the players who went through the last shortened 48-game season in 1994-95, such as current Victoria Royals junior head coach Dave Lowry.
Lowry, a 19-season NHLer, was with the Florida Panthers in 1994-95 and recalls an intense, heightened campaign.
“We played a lot of games without a lot of practice time,” said Lowry.
“That was the first season anything like that had happened and it was something new that nobody had experienced before. You had to make sure you were ready to play every night because every game mattered. Those teams who were fastest out of the starting gate did themselves a service.”
There weren’t as many options to keep up fitness levels back then as there are now.
“Not many guys went to Europe in those days, because we didn’t know how long it would take to get the lockout settled,” said Lowry.
“We skated and worked out in Florida, so game speed was not really an issue for me when we got back. And I only had one speed by then, anyway. By 10 days, everyone should be on level footing [this season].”
O’Byrne is ready for the grind that awaits in a 2013 NHL season that — to quote Thomas Hobbes — will be “nasty, brutish and short.”
“This season is going to be quick, fast and tough,” said the Victoria-produced Avalanche defenceman O’Byrne.
“Every game is a playoff game. And considering that every game is against Western Conference rivals, it makes each game all that more important. The guys who went through this in 1994-95 said it was really exciting and intense, and that the season goes by really quickly. You need to get the wins right away. Getting off to a good start is so important.”
© Copyright 2013