Vancouver Canucks jerseys spanning 50 years, from Pavel Bure’s old No. 10 to Elias Pettersson’s current No. 40, dotted Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Monday night as a sold-out crowd of 7,006 watched the Calgary Flames defeat the Canucks 4-3 in the first National Hockey League exhibition game of the season.
But it was Matthew Phillips of the Flames, former captain of the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League, who received the loudest cheers on his return to Memorial Centre. Veteran NHL defenceman Jordie Benn from Central Saanich also received a rousing ovation on his return to the Island in the Canuck colours of his home-province NHL team after signing as a free agent from the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canucks have been at Memorial Centre since Friday for training camp. Monday’s game was an exhibition match and the Canucks held back some players, including 2018-19 NHL top-rookie Pettersson.
"It has been an excellent training camp and the community has been great," said Canucks general manager Jim Benning.
Sentimental journeys for Phillips, Benn in Memorial Centre game
Back to Blanshard has a certain ring to it.
It certainly did for Matthew Phillips and Jordie Benn.
The vast majority of the fans at a sold-out Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Monday night were cheering for the guys in blue, including Central Saanich-product and Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman Benn, whose pro career began at the Memorial Centre with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL. Benn made his blueline debut with his home-province NHL club after signing as a free-agent from the Montreal Canadiens.
But there was a sentimental twinge reserved for one player in red.
Calgary Flames-prospect Phillips returned to the Memorial Centre for the first time since graduating junior in 2017-18 after three spectacular seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Victoria Royals.
“I had this game circled on the calendar as soon as it was announced. This was an easy game to get up for,” said Phillips, the five-foot-six dynamo, who captained the Royals. “It’s exciting. Such a cool experience. It doesn’t feel real. It’s so unique to come back to your junior rink to play in an NHL jersey.”
Phillips said the three years on the Island helped shape him as a person. That was evident in the special video tribute played in his honour on the big screen during the first period. “From my billets to the Royals staff, my time here made a huge impact on me,” he said.
He could be excused for first turning left instead of right when entering through the back entrance of the Memorial Centre on Monday.
“It’s a big difference being in the visitors’ dressing room,” quipped Phillips.
“I [had to] double check I didn’t skate to the home bench.”
It was a big night for Benn, too.
“I’ve definitely come full circle from starting my pro career in this building with the Salmon Kings,” said the Island product during training camp. “And now to put on a Canucks jersey here, having grown up as a huge fan of the team as a kid, is awesome. It’s almost surreal.”
Phillips received an electrifying standing ovation before the game, and Benn also got a rousing reception when announced. Then the crowd cheered loudly when Phillips assisted on Calgary’s first goal by Dillon Dube. It was all part of the swirl of storylines — including the signing of Canucks forward Brock Boeser — as the NHL exhibition season opened with the Flames downing the Canucks 4-3.
Phillips was named second star of the game and Benn was third star.
It was a split-squad game with another group of Canucks and Flames players meeting in Calgary at the same time with the Canucks winning 3-2 in overtime on two goals by Jake Virtanen. The Canucks, however, played more of their top-end players on Blanshard Street, where they held their three-day training camp prior to the exhibition game. But even that had a limit as there was disappointment among the sold-out throng of 7,006 with 2018-19 NHL rookie-of-the-year Elias Pettersson held out of the game as a healthy scratch. So was touted rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, who skated at the Memorial Centre last winter as a member of the U.S. team in the 2019 world juniors. The Canucks have five exhibition games Monday to Saturday, of eight in total, continuing tonight in Vancouver against the Edmonton Oilers.
Name-brand Canucks regulars in the lineup for the Victoria game included Bo Horvat, Loui Eriksson, Nikolay Goldobin, J.T. Miller, Adam Gaudette and Chris Tanev.
Kole Lind played on the fourth line for the Canucks in a building he also knows well after a junior career with the Kelowna Rockets playing against the Royals.
“I played the craziest game of my life — it was maybe one of the craziest games in WHL history in this building,” Lind said of the infamous Rockets goal with .02 seconds remaining in Game 7 of the Kelowna-Victoria second-round playoff series in 2016.
Not only was Lind up against Phillips again, this time in the NHL, but former Rockets teammates Dube and Justin Kirkland also in the Flames lineup with Phillips on Monday to make it almost a complete throwback night. But how strange was it for Lind to be in the Royals’ dressing room this time? “The Victoria-Kelowna rivalry was kind of like the Utica-Syracuse rivalry I played in last season in the AHL,” said Lind.
Going up against Phillips in junior still registers with Lind. Both are now sophomore pros, having spent their rookie pro seasons in the AHL.
“Matthew Phillips was probably the toughest Royal to play against,” said the Canucks prospect. “There were times you were thinking that you didn’t really notice him out there, then all of a sudden, he had a hat-trick and four points on you.”
Lind was selected by the Canucks in the second round of the 2017 NHL draft, 33rd overall, and is looking to make the jump up from Utica. “I took some power skating over the summer. I want play my game and play with confidence,” he said.
Missing entirely from the ice Monday was the potential Canucks first line of Pettersson, newly-signed Micheal Ferland and the suddenly-signed Boeser, the latter who had held out until being inked just before game time.
Island fans will have to be content with Sunday’s scrimmage on Blanshard when Ferland converted a lead flip pass by Pettersson into a flashy breakaway goal to wow a crowd of about 3,500.
“We’re getting better every day with chemistry,” said Pettersson, on Sunday.
“We’re getting ready to play together a lot this season.”
Asked what he likes about his potential new winger, Pettersson replied: “Ferland wins the puck a lot.”
As to his overall approach heading into the season, the 2018-19 NHL top-rookie Pettersson added: “Simplify a bit. Keep it simple. “I feel ready to start the season.”
Too bad for Island fans it wasn’t Monday.
Ferland, a consistent 40-point producer who has played with Calgary and Carolina, isn’t the only new Canucks forward. Another top-six forward off-season acquisition for Vancouver is Miller, who was on a line Monday with Horvat and Goldobin.
But there’s always pressure, team-wise or personal, when you are in the top league of any sport. “Every year you have to come in a prove yourself,” said veteran Canucks forward Brandon Sutter, who is now 30. “That doesn’t change. And every year you realize how much you cherish playing in this league. And you don’t want it to go away.”