WHISTLER — Ask Jake Virtanen about roller hockey and his face lights up.
Ask a few people around the game in the Lower Mainland and they’ll tell some tales of Virtanen’s stardom in the “summarized” version.
Back in June, Virtanen joined up with his older brother Stefan to play in NARCh, essentially the North American championship tournament for roller hockey, played in southern California.
“My brother’s a huge roller hockey player. Loves roller,” Virtanen said.
“A week before the tournament he said ‘we need someone to score goals.’”
And so the NHLer packed his gear up and went to play the sport he loved as a kid.
“Roller’s good, you can work on your hands a lot,” he said. “A lot of puck possession, you can work on stuff that you wouldn’t normally work on on ice.”
Virtanen has played for his brother’s team before, but not for a few years. Having the Canucks’ winger in the lineup proved to be a boon for the team, known as Pure Maple: Virtanen led the pro division in scoring, leading Pure Maple to the final where they lost to a squad Virtanen said were the clear favourites.
“I think they’re first in North America for pro.”
Along the way, Virtanen made himself a few fans in a far away place: Wisconsin.
Credit Miller Janzen’s quick, teenaged eyes.
Janzen’s team, the Under-16 Farm Tough team, is based near Milwaukee and won the U-16 gold level competition at NARCh.
According to Janzen’s dad Jeff, Miller was initially in disbelief when he spotted Virtanen. An NHLer? Here? To play roller hockey?
“He went to talk to him,” Jeff said earlier this summer. “Jake seemed a little surprised that (Miller) knew who he was.”
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“Jake was friendly talking with my son and was great posing for (a) photo … (it was a) nice surprise for my son, how personable Jake was in taking the time in talking to him, and that meant a lot.”
The Millers are big Canucks fans. Jeff grew up on Vancouver Island and often watches his home-province team on TV, he said.
His son, though born in the U.S., is a big Canucks fan, too, and also a fan of Team Canada when it’s time to watch international hockey.
“A good first impression,” Jeff said of his son meeting Virtanen. “After the moms from our Farm Tough team saw the photo and him in person, the Canucks fan base increased.”
Virtanen said he was happy to oblige.
“I met a lot of kids down there,” Virtanen said. “I obviously have my Canucks bag and I’m walking through and they’re “wait, who’s that guy?’ ”
It was a fun flip in roles for Virtanen, who played a lot of roller hockey when he was young and reeled off a few NHL names — Patrick Maroon and Ryan Kesler, for instance — who also played roller hockey in their youth.
“It just brings back good memories of my friends growing up,” he said. “It gets me away from everything and I can just play roller.”
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