Comets Tales: Virtanen's Unexpected Debut

by Don Laible

May 26, 2015

Jake Virtanen’s first taste of professional hockey was supposed to be simple – then he was inserted into the Utica Comets’ line-up.

As an 18-year-old, and a first round draft pick by the Vancouver Canucks at last year’s NHL Entry Draft (6th overall), Virtanen didn’t expect to see any game time for the Comets. After all, the Comets were battling the Chicago Wolves in American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Western Conference Quarterfinals competition. Coach Travis Green’s lines were set.

Once Virtanen’s juniors team, the Calgary Hitmen were eliminated in the WHL’s Eastern Conference Finals by the Brandon Wheat Kings, a telephone call was answered that would change his life. “Mr. Benning (Vancouver’s General Manager Jim Benning) called,” said Virtanen, who shares both Canadian and Finnish citizenship. “I was told that I would be going to Utica.”

Virtanen, the first born British Columbia-born player selected in the first round by the Canucks since Cam Neely in 1983, figured his role would be a pretty simple one once he reached The AUD. Practicing with the Comets, and at game time having a great view from ice level of what he could expect in the future.

Joining the likes of team captain Cal O’Reilly, or Bobby Sanguinetti on a shift ,or any other Comet player for that matter, was not seriously thought of. Hanging close with Jared McCann, Vancouver’s other first round selection in ’14 (24th overall), had been the norm. Both 18-years-old, they would make their way from their hotel rooms at the Radisson on Genesee Street to The AUD daily.

When Game 6 rolled into The AUD, and Carter Bancks couldn’t go, Virtanen’s name was added to the line-up. “After the first couple of shifts, I got the nerves out,” Virtanen said. “Travis (Green) does a good job on the bench in directing us.”

Not knowing that he would be seeing action in second round playoff competition may have been just the proper introduction for Virtanen. Heading to Utica on May 4, right from the get-go in practice, Virtanen provided a wow moment. During his first on-ice session, Virtanen ripped a shot that ripped clean through the net.

As Virtanen said to the Calgary Herald, in assessing his game plan when learning of his skating in Game 6 – “Keeping it simple, getting it in deep, and being physical”.

Much is expected from Virtanen, both by himself and the Canucks’ organization. Timetables could vary, but the outcome shouldn’t be confused. When returning for his second full season with the Hitmen, Virtanen was projected by The Hockey News to be “a pure goal scorer in the NHL”. After four years in Calgary, and collecting 161 points in 192 games, such expectations from those on the outside looking onto the ice, seem valid.

After game 6 against Oklahoma City, a game in which Utica ultimately came up short, Virtanen met the media. Swarmed by a dozen reporters, clad with cameras and recorders catching his thoughts on life in the AHL,Virtanen displayed the poise of a young man years older.

“It was unbelievable, from start to finish. The intensity was high,” Virtanen explained. “I’m excited to be here for the experience. You have to get used to the crowd noise. I couldn’t hear myself thinking out there. The crowd really motivates the guys in the room.”

With hands on his hips, there was no stammering for words, no deflecting of questions. Virtanen conducted himself as a schooled professional, with but 60 minutes of bench time to his credit. He was also appreciative of being congratulated by his teammates after Game 6, welcoming him to the AHL and for having his first game under his belt.

Jake is the sixth first round draft pick of the Canucks to see ice time in Utica since the start of the regular season. The right winger shoots and hits hard from all angles. Confidence remains his strongest tool in making a difference with his fellow Comets.

“They (Zalewski & Shinkaruk) worked hard to get here (Utica). They have a lot of skill. It’s my job to make space for them,” tells Virtanen, who has lived in Abbotsford,B.C. since he was 12-years-old.

Joining the Comets during a crucial period in their chase for the Calder Cup, as a rookie, could have caused concern to some. But, his fellow teammates know what Jake has to contribute. “He’s got an NHL release. It’s quick, it’s hard, and it’s accurate,”Comets’ defenseman Alex Biega on TSN Radio 1040.

Aside from his Comets’ experience, Jake Virtanen will have a busy summer. Prospects camp is on his schedule, off-season training, then training camp in the City of Prince George located in Northern British Columbia. Wherever the next step is for Virtanen’s growth as a professional, Utica and the Comets will always be remembered as the starting line.

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