A farewell to Bo Horvat
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
Every teenage hockey fan has their own coming-of-age story. The day you realize your favourite team’s next potential star is just as young as you are.
The transition from looking up to athletes as a kid to seeing people your own age making it at the NHL level is a jarring one. “How can someone who easily could’ve been in my geometry class today be a top-six centre on an NHL team? That’s an adult’s job!”
For me, that player was Bo Horvat.
In 2014-15, Bo was 19 years old and playing out his NHL rookie season. Meanwhile a long way down the Pacific Coast, I was a few months shy of my 18th birthday and on the verge of graduating high school.
After the highs of the 2011 Cup run and the lows of the John Tortorella experiment, the Canucks were a team in transition, and Bo was at the centre of it. Just as I was navigating my first years of junior college and how to pursue a career of covering hockey for a living, Horvat was learning how to win faceoffs against the quickest hands in the game and how to balance scoring prowess with defensive responsibility.
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In the same way that young adults before us probably saw Trevor Linden or the Sedins, to me and a generation of my peers, Bo was a mirror reflection of ourselves. He was a kid learning how to grow up on the fly and doing so in an increasingly complicated world, just as we were. And he made it all look so easy for the rest of us.
As years passed and Bo grew into his leadership role, veterans moved on and began to be replaced by a new supporting cast of young talents like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes. Suddenly, Horvat was one of the team’s elder statesmen at just 24 years of age.
The same year that Henrik Sedin presented Horvat with the honour of becoming the 14th captain in Canucks history, I moved from Northern California to Vancouver to start a new chapter of my own career. Our day-to-day challenges might’ve been extremely different from one another, but we were each graduating into our own versions of adulthood.
In 2020, Bo and his wife Holly became parents to their first child Gunnar – with daughter Tulsa to follow in the spring of 2022 – a little over a month before Horvat was packing his bags for Edmonton to play in the COVID playoff bubble. After appearing in the Canucks’ 2015 opening-round loss to Calgary as a rookie, this was Horvat’s first — and so far only — real, legitimate postseason test. He passed with flying colours, leading the Canucks in goals with ten, including an iconic Game 2 performance against the St. Louis Blues that made upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champions possible.
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As outside forces prevented him and the Canucks from returning to the playoffs, he experienced the harshest realities of growing up: knowing when it’s time to move on. Yesterday, that clock struck midnight, as Horvat became a New York Islander and the Canucks unceremoniously waved goodbye to their captain and longest-tenured player.
Horvat spent nine years in a Vancouver Canucks uniform and was saddled with leading some of the worst teams in recent NHL history to some semblance of success. No matter how hard Bo tried, and try he did, the pieces of a playoff team were never truly there.
The blockbuster trade that sent him to Long Island on Monday was a public admittance of how badly the Canucks franchise failed Bo Horvat. They never found him and his fellow young stars a cohesive blue line or proper forward depth, as they tried over and over to patch things up with expensive shortcuts. Those shortsighted decisions are ultimately why, in the middle of a career season where he sits among the NHL’s top ten in goals, the Canucks couldn’t afford to extend his contract.
And what only makes things harder to stomach is how, across his near decade in Vancouver, Bo never failed the Canucks. Or the people who cheered for him.
Horvat was rarely the true face of the franchise. After learning leadership under the tutelage of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Elias Pettersson rose to immediate superstardom and Quinn Hughes soon followed. That fact was arguably a huge blessing for Bo, as it allowed him to slide under the radar of teams more worried about his flashier and younger costars.
His stats were never all that eye-popping. But he was a big game player who, at the height of his power, was just as lethal and unstoppable as any other NHL star.
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Sure, his postgame quotes were old school and purposefully lacked any meat on the bone. But beyond that, Horvat was truly a leader for the modern age of hockey.
Bo managed playing in one of the most pressure-filled markets in North American sports with a level of tact and grace that few before him have ever accomplished. When people on social media tagged him in complaints about his play, he showed a level of sassy self-awareness that very few NHLers would even think to try pulling off. He never tried to make headlines, but he also never shied away from the public eye when called upon to answer the toughest questions.
He was nuanced and well-versed in every sense of those words, and he understood — perhaps better than any other captain in the NHL — that leading the Vancouver Canucks went far beyond hockey or the players in the locker room. It was a responsibility he carried everywhere he went.
He actively supported the Every Child Matters movement and did what he could to bring more attention to the harm that the residential school system had caused First Nations communities. He advocated for eliminating homophobic language in sports, publicly called out the NHLPA’s handling of the Chicago Blackhawks scandal, and wasn’t caught off guard when he was asked about Don Cherry’s infamous “you people” comment.
When the Black Lives Matter protests took centre stage during the 2020 playoff bubble and NHL players made the unified decision not to play, there was Bo; standing out in front alongside Ryan Reaves, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nazem Kadri and Jason Dickinson, answering questions about something far bigger than any hockey game.
As a kid who rose to stardom under the watchful eye of controversial hockey powers like the London Knights and Hockey Canada, no one would’ve been surprised if Bo had turned into the type of leader synonymous with hockey culture’s biggest flaws. But he made sure he didn’t by using his platform to lift up the people who needed it more, and Vancouver was better off for it.
How Bo’s legacy as a Canuck will be judged in the years to come is anybody’s guess. As the franchise’s tenth most prolific scorer, it’s possible that the Ring of Honour might be in his future whenever he hangs up his skates. Perhaps the lack of real success he experienced here will land him amongst some the team’s oft-forgotten legends, like Tony Tanti and Alexander Mogilny. Or maybe that single playoff round win will be coupled with his work in the community and celebrated, as it was for Markus Naslund and Mattias Ohlund.
But that story will be the next generation’s to tell.
For myself, yesterday’s news marked the end of an era that only a few others around my age will truly understand. Some will look at the season results and only see a player whose teams missed the playoffs eight out of nine seasons. To me, Horvat’s departure represents the end of an era full of youthful optimism, and the beginning of one built around harsh, bitter reality.
By the time Bo’s new contract in New York (or maybe elsewhere) kicks in on July 1, I’ll be 26 years old. I’ve spent my entire adult life writing about the exploits of this confident, hard-working, talented kid from London, Ontario and, without realizing it, have grown up right alongside him.
I’ve never had an opportunity in my career to talk to Bo, but maybe someday I’ll get the chance to thank him for being the type of leader the next generation of hockey players could truly look up to. Or for inspiring me to be more courageous and vocal about causes outside of the rink I believe in. Or just for being one of the single greatest hockey players I’ve ever had the fortune of watching night after night.
But until that day arrives, I’ll just wish him luck on Long Island, and I hope I’ll get to see him hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup someday.
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