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Canucks-friendly crowd awaits Sharks at Colwood arena

The Bay Area is a convenient direct flight from YYJ. But that still won’t sway many of the fans Monday night at the Q Centre in Colwood. As much as Islanders complain about the B.C. Ferries, there is little doubt where their NHL loyalties rest.
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Abbotsford's Jake Virtanen is a 19-year-old newcomer to the Canucks this season.

The Bay Area is a convenient direct flight from YYJ. But that still won’t sway many of the fans Monday night at the Q Centre in Colwood.

As much as Islanders complain about the B.C. Ferries, there is little doubt where their NHL loyalties rest. It’s a B.C. thing, much like the Seattle Seahawks are a regional thing and the Toronto Blue Jays a Canadian thing.

It promises to be an overwhelmingly pro-Canucks crowd when Vancouver takes on the San Jose Sharks in the Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet One nationally broadcast 2015 Kraft Hockeyville NHL pre-season opener at 7:30 p.m. The only thing that might have put a dent in that support is if the Dallas Stars and Island product, Olympic gold medallist and defending NHL Art Ross Trophy scoring champion Jamie Benn of Central Saanich had been selected as the opposition for the game. But Benn and the Stars weren’t picked for the occasion.

And, as always, it’s anybody’s guess who you’re going to see play in an exhibition game. But both the Canucks and Sharks may want to put their best skate forward in what is the only nationally televised NHL pre-season fixture.

The Canucks are flying in from their training camp, which concludes today in Prince George. By now, every hockey fan in this province knows the familiar names — the Sedins, Jannik Hansen, Alex Burrows, Alex Edler and the like. What may be most intriguing, however, are the youthful newcomers such as Jake Virtanen, the six-foot-one, 212-pound forward who laid waste to Connor McDavid with a body-shivering check last week when the Canucks rookies played the Edmonton rookies. The 2014 first round, sixth-overall, draft pick Virtanen is going to have to do a lot of that over the years if the Canucks are to stem that rising Oilers tidal wave that looks ready to crest and spill across the Rockies.

“[Virtanen] can play the skill game and the physical game,” said Stan Smyl, the Canucks director of player personnel and senior adviser to GM Jim Benning, during the Canucks development camp held at Shawnigan Lake School over the summer.

“He can go through people. He can hit people, and he doesn’t care who he hits. Jake and [fellow 2014 first-round draft pick] Jared McCann both have dangerous releases and can score on the rush. We need those types of players.”

Virtanen won gold with Canada at the 2015 world junior championships on a national side that included defenceman Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals and with Royals bench boss Dave Lowry as assistant coach. Virtanen, because he is 19, can only play pro in the NHL this season and not as a regular in the AHL. That’s the rule. If he is sent back to junior in the WHL, Royals fans can see him at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre with the Hitmen on Feb. 3. But  don’t count on it. Despite his age, this guy could stick in Vancouver.

Territorial exemptions are not allowed in major-league sports, of course. So happenstance has made Abbotsford’s Virtanen a rare home-province Canuck. So too recently acquired forward Adam Cracknell, who was born in Prince Albert, Sask., but moved to the Island to play his youth hockey with Juan de Fuca before going to the Saanich Braves in Junior B.

Cracknell will play in Victoria for the first time since the Las Vegas Wranglers — with current-Canucks assistant coach Glen Gulutzan then the Wranglers bench boss — played against the Salmon Kings for two seasons in the minor-pro ECHL. He got the full-metal jacket feel of Canucks fervour in this province during training camp in Prince George

“The practice sessions [at CN Place] were sold out and so is [today’s] intrasquad game,” said Cracknell, the 30-year-old journeyman centre brought to the Canucks from the St. Louis Blues in an Aug. 25 deal.

“They are looking for me to be a physical player who is strong down low and can contribute,” added Cracknell, by phone from Prince George.

“It’s a huge opportunity to showcase myself in the game Monday, especially since I got such a great start on the West Shore in the Juan de Fuca minor hockey association.”

Cracknell won’t be alone in his homecoming. There will be a crew of hometown officials working Monday night’s Kraft Hockeyville game.

“This is a dream come true,” said Trent Knorr of Victoria, in his rookie season as a full-time NHL linesman, after working his way up through the WHL, ECHL and AHL.

“It’s every person’s dream to be on the national stage in his hometown.”

The other linesman for the game is NHL veteran Lonnie Cameron, also from Greater Victoria.

“It’s really cool to be able to do this where you were born and raised, especially for Lonnie, since he’s a West Shore guy raised just down the street from the Q Centre,” said Knorr.

Cameron will be in the unique position of working an NHL game in an arena in which his picture hangs. That’s probably never happened before.

One of two referees working the game Monday is Mike Leggo, who also lived for several years in Victoria, while he slogged his way up through the BCHL and WHL.

While the Kraft Hockeyville game is being held in a metro region of 350,000, part of the event’s annual appeal comes from watching NHLers play in a small-arena setting.

That’s likely why the 7,006-seat Memorial Centre wasn’t chosen. Even though several rink issues made the winning Panorama Rec Centre in North Saanich unable to host the game, the intimate vibe so important to this annual game could still be maintained at the Q Centre. The free tickets for the game and pre-game skates were distributed by lottery.

The public can see the players when they arrive at the Q Centre on Monday for their pre-game skates during red-carpert entrances in which the NHLers stop and talk with the fans. The Sharks arrive between 7:45 and 9 a.m., with the Canucks arriving at 10:15 a.m.

Other Kraft Hockeyville festivities, including the Stanley Cup on display, run today from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Panorama Rec Centre.

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