In traditional hockey terms, today is a big day for 17-year-old Jake Virtanen.
Even with shoulder surgery this spring, Virtanen should be a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft, the beginning of his professional dream.
But of his hockey aspirations, NHL stardom shares the mantle with another shining prospect: Olympic glory.
“It’s always been my goal for sure to be on an Olympic team,” says Virtanen in an interview this spring, “hopefully I will sooner than later,” he adds.
This admission is common among junior players, those who fully grew up in the era of NHL players attending the Olympic Winter Games. Virtanen would have been five when Lemieux, Sakic and Blake won gold in Salt Lake City, and only thirteen to watch Vancouver’s triumph.
In 2010, top prospect Sam Reinhart was fourteen when the Olympic hockey tournament took place down the road from his hometown West Vancouver.
“Whenever it comes around it’s very exciting to watch as a player. To be able to play at that (the Olympics) would be a huge honour,” says Reinhart.
“You do think about it sometimes not just in the driveway as a kid scoring goals, you do think about it as a possibility.”
Both Virtanen and Reinhart already know the feeling of wearing a Canadian sweater, with multiple Under-18 medals between them. Reinhart also has World Junior experience. It’s not unlikely that some of their Olympic eagerness stems from this.
It was exciting, there was a lot of work put into it but when you put on that jersey there’s no extra motivation needed to really give it your all – Sam Reinhart on playing for Canada
Peterborough Petes forward Nick Ritchie, who is also pegged as a potential top-10, watched the last two Olympics closely, “In 2010 that Crosby goal was pretty good for the whole country. It was a real close game. Even the last Olympics, just how dominating Team Canada was, that was cool to see,” he says.
A large winger, Ritchie played with Reinhart during their U-18 tenure with Hockey Canada. They won gold together at the 2013 World Championship.
Today will be another opportunity for shared success, a moment Ritchie has imagined was possible for some time, “I haven’t made anything yet but I’m working hard to hopefully play in the NHL one day. I was always a pretty good player, I knew if I kept my work ethic up I’d have a good shot,” he comments.
It’s hard not to ask: if given the choice, would these players take an Olympic gold medal or a Stanley Cup championship?
So, of course, we did. Ritchie delivers his answer complete with reasoning, “I think I’d choose a Stanley Cup. Both are pretty big but growing up as a kid watching the guys lift the Stanley Cup, it’s a big grind, you have to win four 7-game series. There’s nothing like winning that.”
Jake Virtanen has a different answer, “I have to say an Olympic gold medal. It’s pretty crazy, you have all the top players in the world playing against you. To put on the Canadian jersey, it’s always pretty crazy to represent your country.”
Sam Reinhart chuckles when asked, “That’s tough, I think both would be incredible I don’t know how to answer that,” he says.
It’s not an easy question. Tonight at least, the chance to one day play for a Stanley Cup will become more likely for all three. Grand possibilities for a Canadian teenager.
For his part, Virtanen has a good perspective, “It’s been quite the ride so far. I’ve had a lot of fun coming in as a 16-year-old and experiencing a couple teammates getting drafted. Now it’s my year to get drafted, I’m just trying to have a lot of fun with it.”