Maybe we shouldn’t make a national villain out of Jake Virtanen

It’s January 3rd, 2016. The sun is up, it’s a little chilly, and there aren’t any games left for Team Canada to play in the World Juniors. Admittedly, it’s a little bit different to see the Canadians not even competing for a chance to win the bronze medal, let alone gold. This is, by virtue of standings, the worst showing that Canada has had in eighteen years at the tournament. There’s reason to be disappointed. But then you open up a newspaper and see things like this:

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You head onto social media, and you see immense hatred placed on his (and his some of his teammates) shoulders, even from people who couldn’t care less bout the Canucks or hockey in general. There’s an attention-seeking going petition around to have him deported. 

I get it. The game against Finland had its peaks and valleys, but no valley was bigger that Virtanen’s trip and slash that nullified Canada’s powerplay, eventually put them on a penalty kill, which lead to a bad clearance and a 5-on-3, which lead to the goal that eliminated them. It was an undisciplined play. I get it. It was few seconds from one player out of a full team’s multi-week tournament that went awry, but I get it.

But, can we get through this without tormenting teenagers on a public stage?

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When you criticize the Canucks for selecting Virtanen in the 2014 draft, that’s fair game. Technically, it’s not even a criticism of Virtanen; it’s a criticism of the front office who believed him to be the best option available of them. It’s possible to say “I would have rather taken ____”, yet be supportive of the player and encourage him to follow the best he can be, hopefully even exceeding your expectations in hindsight.

When you say that you don’t think he should be with the Canucks right now, that’s also fair game. Truthfully, I’m a bit disappointed that he’s coming back up. He hasn’t been particularly good, which is to be expected for a player as young as he is, but more importantly, his workload isn’t heavy enough for a player that the Canucks envision playing in the top six one day. He’s had a few months to learn how the NHL lifestyle works. His WHL team, the Calgary Hitmen, are atop their conference and would welcome him back as their star with open arms. If he goes back soon, you don’t burn a year of RFA eligibility. The route the team has taken is questionable but still salvageable. All of these are fair game thoughts.

When you criticize Virtanen’s play when he’s up with the Canucks, it’s fair game, as long as it doesn’t devolve into personal attacks. He’s a professional hockey player being paid to use his on-ice talents to win games and entertain fans, so they’ll continue to pay for the product. There is always room to constructively critique somebody for their job performance, especially when your income becomes their income.

But when the situation wasn’t the same when Virtanen stepped onto the ice in Helsinki. He wasn’t there doing his job; he was there as a volunteer, representing the country where he was born and grown up in. He wasn’t there to collect a paycheque, he was there to make everybody proud. The same goes for the other young men, many of them too young to drink in certain parts of the country.

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Perhaps our definition of “making proud” has shifted for the worse over the years. As the World Juniors get increasingly over-relied upon by Canadian Media and Sponsors as a dependable annual income source, the narratives get more intense and the expectations get higher. What used to be “do your best” became “anything but gold is a failure”. Hell, towards the end of Canada’s most recent dynasty, we started to tear into these kids for not having perfect tournament records or shutouts in single games.

We’ve hit the point where a single goal improves a player’s draft position and a bad six or seven game stretch, with players you’ve often never played with until that point, can ruin your reputation forever. It’s already silly enough when this happens at men’s tournaments, but considering that most of these players go home and face another four to six more years of development before they hit their stride, it’s crazy.

I mentioned this yesterday when talking about the team on the whole, but the “helicopter parent” spectacle seems to spill over here. In this case, however, except its millions of people doing it to a handful of teenagers. If Jake Virtanen was your kid and had had a rough day during training for his new job, you wouldn’t stand up at a family dinner and tell all his relatives that he has no future. You’d be seen as insane, though, in a sense, we’re all a little insane to care about sports in the way that we do.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Virtanen is going to remain a hot-button topic for years to come in Vancouver, be it through his development path or his on-ice results. His selection is going to be an anchor point when evaluating the Jim Benning era. He’s going to be taking heat for a long time. But this time around, let’s avoid making a local and national villain out of a kid who let his emotions get the best of him while playing for pride?

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  • 24% body fat

    Virtanen was awful, but so were many other players on Canada (Crouse, Gauthier, the goalie). He doesn’t deserve all the blame, but he certainly didn’t help the team one iota.

  • Charlie Allnut

    Well isn’t that just great, now we’ll never be able to trade him. What’s next? If it wasn’t for bad luck, Canucks would have no luck at all.

  • ManicSt

    Well said. The armchair coaching/gm-ing when it gets to the personal level (as it does often) is disgusting.

    Because being a 19-year-old (admittedly well-compensated) hockey player who screws up is obviously headline news and far worse than what other 19-year-olds were getting up to over the New Year’s holiday…

  • wojohowitz

    It`s a different kind of tournament, mainly because it`s a very level playing field e.g, if the next Bobby Orr happened to play for Slovakia then they would become the tourney favourite but it is also representative of a country`s culture. The teenagers who grow up with a disciplined background tend to do better rather than the country that coddles their youth – like Canada does. For that reason you need a `system` that the players can all accept. Bringing together the twenty best young players rarely works because it is based on the idea of individual talents meshing into a team in a very short time frame. The easiest example is having defensemen who can play defense rather than accumulate points or a forward with few points but knows how to back check and play a tough physical game.

    I`m a big fan of this tournament because I notice how the fundamentals of the game are taught or in Canada`s case not taught. The ability to make or take a pass or positional play in their own zone. Canada has always been top notch in developing their talent but very weak in teaching fundamentals. One example is Ben Hutton learning to play in college and making a somewhat smooth transition at a very difficult position. Only the very rare raw talent like Ekblad can jump from junior to the pro level while college players spend four years learning their position.

    The bottom line is European coaches teach the fundamentals much better than Canadian junior coaches who spend their time trying to win above all else rather than teaching the teenagers the basics of the game.

  • Charlie Allnut

    I was disappointed with Virtanen’s play, too, but it’s far too early to be writing an obituary for his hockey career. People seriously need to relax. And there’s no call whatsoever for personal attacks.

    As Veillette points out above, these players have very little time to get used to playing with each other. Star soccer players often under perform in the World Cup. Why do we expect more from Junior hockey players.

    High performance at the World Juniors is not necessarily a sign of future success. Cody Hodgson and Jim Sandlak were both stars of the tournament. Sandlak had a lacklustre NHL career. So has Hodgson so far.

    Give Virtanen a break.

  • pheenster

    I was really hoping for the big breakout for Jake at the tourney as much as the next guy.. would have loved it as much or more than winning gold. But we’re just not used to ‘player development’ in Vancouver. Historically our draft picks usually have to be super good right away to overcome our development issues, so we’re not used to the benefits of waiting. We understand it’s a thing (trading for late bloomers in Naskund/Bertuzzi), but we don’t often see the homegrown version. Case in point: I’m shocked as shaz that Shinkaruk is developing so well after a slow first season in the pros.

    I would have loved for Virtanen to have shown everyone the extra gear that you hope a 6th overall draft pick will bring to the table. But Virtanen was a young pick for his draft year and plays a game that does not easily transition from junior to the pros. So I’ve come to accept that his development curve is looking like it’s going to be more similar to a defenseman: we’re going to have to let him slow cook for a while before he really gets a handle on his game.. could mean 3-4 years of development. Seems like a lot now, but we’ll get 6-8 years of Virtanen in his prime if we can be patient.

    Better to have a player that needs development time at the front end of a retool/rebuild than at the end. Hopefully he’ll feel like found money just as we hit our stride.

    • Charlie Allnut

      His development curve?? His behaviour in Finland makes it pretty clear that he’s been taking his mentoring from the likes of the Dorsetts / Prusts and not the Sedins.

      I’d say his poor performance reflects poorly on the Canucks, that are supposed to be developing him, with coach Willie being touted as a developer of young players.

      • andyg

        Jake has always been hot-tempered, and he’s actually made some pretty great strides to control that part of his game. It got away from him for a minute there in a high pressure situation, and although we all wish it didn’t, that’s something he’ll be able to control.

        I’m sure he’s learning from the Sedins, but I don’t expect an overnight transition from bone-crushing hits & highly physical play to taking a punch in the face & being able to just stand there & zen out about the whole exchange. I don’t think any of us want him to take it that far anyway. He’s got to learn from everyone.

  • Charlie Allnut

    Virtanen has an adult body and a teenager’s mind, because… he’s a teenager.

    He acted emotionally and made a mistake during a hockey game. He didn’t injure anybody, he didn’t stick a knife in somebody’s guts, or drink or drive, like countless other emotional teenagers do. He took a dumb penalty during a hockey game.

    If you like, crucify him for being emotional and making a mistake as a teenager, but before you do, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you were perfect as a teenager. I think not.

  • 24% body fat

    Yes we shouldnt be doing this to teenagers, and yes they are not getting paid for this tournament, but he is old enough and should be smart enough to know what comes with the territory.

  • Charlie Allnut

    I’m not sure how much of the heat being put on Virtanen is for the team performance… Yeah, the result is disappointing, but not a shock to fans that watched a few games. I think the frustration is how he conducted himself when the game was on the line. We pride ourselves on Canadian Hockey handling themselves with class and putting the team ahead of all else- Jake had a few penalties that were selfish- including the slash… and all the whining about the officials after the game was also uber cheesy! He was not alone, but the slash was a head-shaking moment that kinda summarizes the tourney for Canadian fans.

  • Charlie Allnut

    I will say it again and again….. Jake is a kid put on a pedestal and very few kids can handle it appropriately. Even before the final game people here were seriously denigrating Jake.

    The Canucks brass were pretty much all in Jakes shoes at one time early in their careers and know best how to protect him and get the most out of their asset by doing so.

    The rest of us armchair GMs and Presidents and NHL coaches should be impressed that Canucks management have decided to support him by holding him in close to the team instead of cutting him loose to juniors-and a rabid media feeding frenzy.

    Support him,strengthen his mindset and play-exactly what a caring father would do. Fans should be very relieved that the Canucks have shown this level of intelligence with Jake.

    • Charlie Allnut

      You know I initially also wanted the Canucks to send him back to junior to get more ice time and a chance to dominate. But I agree that there’s something in the management sticking with him — this is a pretty delicate time in his development and this idiotic reaction by Canadian fans (who frankly blow the WJC WAY out of proportion, especially given how little of an impact it has in just about any other country including increasingly the European countries outside of maybe Sweden, Finland and Russia) makes me think that the Canucks just might have a better handle on how to support him than a bunch of fantasy hockey gms and terrible (national) hockey parents.

      • Charlie Allnut

        Management is sticking with him because he played the type of hockey that they have been trying to teach him. They know the type of character he exhibited doesn’t get called in the NHL anyway, and the goals will come if he keeps playing good.

  • Charlie Allnut

    Jake’s game belongs in the NHL, he will always be an awesome 3rd/4th liner, but also has potential to grow into a lot more than that.

    There just aren’t many guys who are as big, mean and fast, and the Canucks really, really need that.

  • andyg

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in an article published in The Province. It’s a “newspaper” that’s really a bunch of ads for local furniture stores and car dealerships with so-called “news” articles crammed in between.

    • Charlie Allnut

      This. Typical garbage published by garbage Vancouver newspaper…

      Keep Jake up with the big club; he needs to watch and learn how the Sedins operate on a daily basis, not physically man handle teenagers and learn bad habits back in the Dub.

      Put the kid, one of your top prospects, on the second power play unit and let him build confidence/use his offensive abilities to help an offensively challenged team.

      The only guys marked in permanent ink so far on the power play units are the twins, Vrbata and Hutton. I want to see Horvat, Virtanen and McCann as staples on PP2; they’re miles better than the rest of the plugs on the roster.

  • Charlie Allnut

    The only person casting him as a villain is the idiot who did that article.

    The entire team shat the bed and not just Jake. Give me a break. They all stunk!

  • Charlie Allnut

    Don’t worry Canada, there will be a new 19 yr old to roast next year…

    Canada hasn’t done well in Europe as a rule! The refs are like girls playing two hand touch and there is Bully mentality when it comes to Canadians playing on Euro ice!

    Jake melted down on that PP, but I was at the Jets v Ducks game to night and the physical play in the NHL is miles above Junior or Intl! I think Jake should get back with the Canucks, play and throw himself around the ice!

    • pheenster

      Who are “purst” and “borrows”? And where did you learn punctuation and capitalization?

      A sad statement on the current condition of the Alberta education system.

  • TrueBlue

    Wasn’t Jake supposed to go over there and dominate? One assist and bad penalties… he deserves some scorn. Spare me the politically correct request to continue coddling him…

  • pheenster

    It’s not even that I don’t think Virtanen might someday be a good hockey player. I just don’t think he should have ever made the team, period. He never showed enough in my eyes. I don’t see how he ever did in anyone’s eyes. I think Benning was trying hard to justify his drafting and future-developing chops and let him stay.

    It was always a mistake, and that’s not a criticism of Virtanen; the GM and coach were arrogant and bull-headedly played a kid who shouldn’t have been there.

  • Oilfaninvan

    Something tells me that if the “goat” in question was property of another Canadian NHL team, the reaction in Vancouver would be much different than this politically correct “he’s just a teenager, how dare you hurt his feelings” nonsense. Obviously, there’s a lot of criticism to share as to why Canada did not fare well, but the truth is Virtanen was expected to play a larger (and more successful, dominant role) in the tournament, and he didn’t. He was sent there to dominate and feel good about his game and unfortunately that didn’t happen. Thankfully, the experience alone will not determine the kind of career he will ultimately have in the NHL.