Victoria Royals fans won’t be cheering for WHL Calgary Hitmen defenceman Jett Woo tonight. But they could be in the future when he dons the colours of the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL.
The guy from Manitoba is aiming to eventually be a big deal in B.C.
The Canucks-signed Woo returns to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre tonight for the first time since skating in the Vancouver training camp here last September. The 19-year-old blue-liner, selected by the Canucks 37th overall in the second round of the 2018 NHL draft, leads the Hitmen (31-18-5) onto the Island tonight for the game against the Royals (29-20-6).
He isn’t the first Woo to skate on Blanshard in the WHL. Dad Larry Woo played for the Victoria Cougars in 1989-90 and had five goals and 13 points with 111 penalty minutes in 64 games. He was traded to Swift Current after four games the following season and the elder Woo finished his hockey career with four seasons in Canada West with his home-province University of Manitoba Bisons.
Victoria defenceman Will Warm skated with the younger Woo in Canucks training camp at the Memorial Centre last fall, and played against him in the Eastern Conference, when Warm was with Edmonton. Warm remembers a player who is mobile and offensively adept, as Jett Woo’s 39 points in 54 games this season attest, after recording 66 last season in Moose Jaw for the Warriors.
“But we focus on ourselves more than [other teams’ star players] because we know we win most of the time when we play our game,” said Warm.
Yet, there is no denying the added dimension a blue-liner such as Woo — named after actor Jet Li — brings to a game situation.
“Woo’s presence on the blue line is similar to that of [NHL first-round draft picks] Bowen Byram with Vancouver and Ty Smith with Spokane,” added Royals head coach Dan Price.
“The team around them takes on their dynamism as well,” said Price, in articulating what players such as Woo, Byram and Smith bring to the Hitmen, Giants and Chiefs, respectively.
“The style of game changes because of players like that, which is why defensive fundamentals are important when facing them.”
Royals forward Carson Miller grew up playing against Woo on the prairies.
“He was a hard-nosed kid and is now a solid defenceman who can move the puck,” said Miller.
Other Royals who know Woo well are first round Anaheim Ducks draft pick Brayden Tracey and goaltender Adam Evanoff, who both played with Woo for the Warriors in Moose Jaw.
But Tracey is among Victoria’s lengthy list of wounded, along with fellow forwards Tarun Fizer, Keanu Derungs, Sean Gulka, Ty Yoder and defenceman Jacob Herauf, who have 162 of the Royals’ 393 combined points on the season. The Royals have also been without the WHL’s January goaltender of the month Shane Farkas, who has 18 of the team’s 29 victories, and was the leading candidate for club MVP before being injured.
Warm only returned to the lineup Monday in the 7-6 overtime loss in Kamloops after missing nearly a month to injury.
“It’s a really short bench, so everyone has to play heavy minutes,” he said.
“It’s the next-man-up mentality,” said Miller.
With the Hitmen in town, the Royals benefit by having a lot of players who know the Eastern Conference well from having played in it. That list includes Miller, Warm, Evanoff, Tracey, Herauf and Gary Haden
“It’s a different style of play in the East,” said Warm.
“Teams stretch the ice more in that conference.”
The Hitmen have won three consecutive games and are 7-3 in their last 10. They also feature another Canucks’ prospect. Forward Carson Focht was taken in the fifth round of the 2019 draft by Vancouver and is dangerous, as evidenced by his 30 goals and 48 points in 51 games this season for the Hitmen.
The Kamloops Blazers lead the second-place Royals by 10 points in the B.C. Division with each team having 13 games remaining. The Royals, however, must now be more concerned about their flank. The torrid third-place Vancouver Giants have won 10 consecutive games to move within a point of Victoria in the B.C. table with a game in hand.
At stake in that race is home-ice advantage in a potential first-round playoff match-up between the Royals and Giants.
The Royals have a short turnaround after hosting the Hitmen tonight. The divisional-rival Kelowna Rockets come to the Island for games Friday and Saturday. That’s not a lot of time to heal for Victoria’s injured.
Of the injured, Price said Gulka has the best chance of returning soonest. Tracey, Fizer and Derungs are also listed day-to-day by the league. Farkas and Herauf are week-to-week and Yoder four-to-five weeks.