His coach stoically calls him “pretty good.” His captain playfully calls him “clueless.” By season’s end, we all could be calling “rookie of the year.”
“Are you Brock Boeser? Excuse me. EXCUSE me. Are YOU Brock Boeser?”
The kids aren’t quite sure, but they know he’s here. They hop up and down frenetically, clad in a hodgepodge of equipment that doesn’t match, cold air puffing out of their face cages as they prepare to skate on the very ice the Vancouver Canucks did minutes earlier. Somewhere in the MasterCard Centre on Toronto’s outskirts, Boeser lurks. He’s not yet famous enough to be instantly recognizable here, though that’s certainly changed out west. The kids know he’ll dart out of a corner somewhere and don’t want to miss him. It’s a lot like the way opposing defensemen view him during his monster rookie campaign: he’s impossible to find until it’s too late. So the little tykes quiz every male between the ages of 15 and 50 who emerges from the Canucks’ dressing room. Are you Brock Boeser?
Finally, the NHL’s newest goal-scoring rock star emerges. The little ones must wait their turn to meet him, as the swell of reporters gets first dibs. It is Boeser’s maiden excursion to Canada’s hockey hotbed cities, after all. First comes Toronto for a tilt with the Maple Leafs, then it’s off to Montreal to battle the Canadiens. One thing is immediately clear: he’s got the hair figured out. Blond locks cascade off his head like those of a He-Man action figure. Boeser’s look baffles veteran linemate Thomas Vanek, who’s convinced it stays up on its own without shampoo or conditioner, and he’s not wrong. Boeser’s secret is to go a few days without washing it, “get a little grease in there,” as he puts it, and let it take that perfect shape.
Aside from nailing the sick flow, though, nothing stands out about Boeser at first glance. At 20 and less than one full season into his pro career, he’s relatively shy and unassuming. Asked to describe how Boeser fits into the Canucks’ team culture, whether he’s the funny one or the loud one or the shy one, captain Henrik Sedin smirks and jokes, “He’s the clueless one. I’ll leave it at that.” So Boeser projects a certain innocence. A gritty name like Brock typically conjures images of a brawny character like wrestling and mixed martial arts star Brock Lesnar, but this Brock, the hockey version, is not particularly tall or chiselled or fast or imposing. And that’s a bit surprising considering how easy transitioning to the NHL has appeared for him. He left a productive career at the University of North Dakota to suit up for nine games with the Canucks late last season, popping in four goals. Now he’s smack in the middle of the franchise’s greatest rookie campaign ever, which is saying a lot considering Pavel Bure won the Calder Trophy with the Canucks in 1992. As the 2017-18 season entered the stretch drive, Boeser’s 25 goals in 49 games had him top-10 in the NHL and put him on pace to break Bure’s team rookie records of 34 goals and 60 points (which he co-holds along with Ivan Hlinka).
New YouTube clips of him disappearing, then reappearing elsewhere in the offensive zone to surprise goalies with snipes to pop up every week, none more famous than the one of Boeser, all alone in the slot, staring down the deity known as Carey Price, practically daring him to make a save, before hurling a wrister top-corner.
Hockey pundits rave about Boeser’s release, comparing it to Brett Hull’s. Boeser admits he never watched a lot of Hull growing up in Burnsville, Minn., opting instead to idolize fellow Minnesotan Kyle Okposo, but he does concede his trademark shooting techniques come from somewhere unique. Forget the cliche of the dented garage door: Boeser sculpted his shot by working on much more specific, game-relevant maneuvers as a kid. His local rink in Burnsville had what he calls a “training center” across the street, which was loaded with various skill stations, and Boeser started visiting before or after practices from the time he played at the squirt level.
“Our coach would put things in front of us, so we’d work on pulling around it or pushing and shooting, and that’s where I started to learn,” Boeser said. “Over time I really thought about the angles of shooting, the different angles you can take, how to pull the puck in and shoot, so I learned that myself, I guess.”
It shows today in that release, which boasts the lightning-quick fluidity of a gunslinger firing off his six-shooter in a western. It looks almost effortless, which is interesting, because if there’s one thing that has defined Boeser’s first season more than highlight-reel goals, it’s the E-word: effort, or more specifically the evolution from effortless to effortful.
It seems like an eternity ago now, but remember when Boeser was in danger of not making the team? Reports surfaced out of camp he wasn’t in good enough shape and would have to fight for a job. Surely that sent a chill down the collective spine of Canucks Nation after witnessing the rocky saga of Jake Virtanen, another first-round goal-scoring power forward who hasn’t been able to escape career quicksand thus far.
Boeser ended up making the Canucks only to find himself a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season. New coach Travis Green felt he had to send a message, and the two had some earnest early autumn discussions in hopes of spiking Boeser’s commitment level.
“I thought he was tired,” Green said. “I don’t think of Brock as this graceful, fast, burning skater. His skating had dipped, and he didn’t play very well in his last two exhibition games. He took a week where he worked on his quickness on and off the ice, and I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for him. It was a combination of getting himself ready to play and timing, which took a week of getting his jump back, and having some urgency in his game, knowing, ‘Hey, I’ve got to kick it in here.’ The sign of being a good player is being able to do it. He has.”
Green, face painted with stoicism, added Boeser had been “pretty good most games.” Pretty good? During the best rookie season by any Canuck ever? Whatever you say, coach. Hey, it’s likely a motivational tactic. He doesn’t want to plant another seed of complacency, and the strategy seems to be working. Boeser speaks with an air of accountability now when he reminisces on his pre-season struggles.
“They challenged me to make sure my skating was there and ready for the year,” he said. “That’s been a lot better this year. I’ve come a long way with that and just the ability to adjust. Last year at the end of the year, I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are a lot stronger. It’s a lot harder to get to the net.’ So getting stronger in that regard and doing those little things has helped me a lot.”
Boeser registered at least three shots on goal in more than half his games in the first half, establishing himself as a consistent scoring threat rather than the archetype of the enigmatic goal-scorer who “plays when he wants to.”
With help from veteran teammates, he’s also worked on rounding out his game to do more than just fire the puck.
“There are some things you can’t teach,” said Vanek, “and that’s his shot, the way he gets open. But the part of the game I think I can teach him and help him with, and not just me but also other guys, is that he’s got such a good shot that people are slowly trying to take him away. He’s been doing a good job the last couple weeks of, when the shot’s not there, to turn up, hit a late guy, create more room for his linemates and give them a chance to score.”
So it’s been a nice turnaround to go from the press box to the top two of every imaginary mid-season Calder Trophy ballot, neck and neck with the New York Islanders’ Matt Barzal, in a few months. But for anyone who has followed Boeser’s story since the Canucks drafted him 23rd overall out of the United States League in 2015, it’s no shock to see him grind his way through adversity. He’s done so in the past no matter what horrific obstacles have been thrust across his road to the NHL.
In 2010, when Boeser was 13, his father, Duke, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The ticking clock of such an affliction, which seizes the nervous system, was terrifying enough, but it accelerated when Duke got into a major car accident in 2012 and sustained brain damage. Brock was just starting high school then. Duke is no longer able to work, and Brock’s mother, Laurie, had to work three jobs to support the family.
Two years after Duke’s accident, just before Brock’s first practice with Team USA at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, tragedy returned with another devastating car crash. This time, it involved four of his close friends from Burnsville. One of them, Ty Alyea, lost his life, while another, Cole Borchardt, required emergency brain surgery and spent months in hospital recovering. Boeser gutted out his draft year with his heart absolutely shattered while playing in tribute to his four friends.
Today Borchardt is progressing nicely, having regained the ability to walk on his own about a year after the crash, while Duke and Laurie had the joy of announcing the Canucks’ starting lineup in the dressing room last March before Brock’s NHL debut, in Minnesota against the Wild.
But Boeser never forgets losing Alyea, nor does he ever take for granted what his family has endured and sacrificed to help him reach the pros.
“It makes me realize how lucky I really am,” he said. “You realize all the support and love you have from friends and family. It’s crazy how many of them support me. You get stronger as a person from those types of things. They are different types of tragedies, but you can compare them in some ways to what you experience in hockey. Obviously it’s not as bad, but just like in life, you’re going to have your ups and downs, and you just have to work through it.”
It’s easy to get a smile out of Boeser in conversation, maybe because he treats each day as a gift. He cherishes every minute of living in picturesque Vancouver. He and goaltender Thatcher Demko got addicted to biking around the seawall over the summer, and Boeser took his brother and sister-in-law zip-lining down Grouse Mountain. He’s starting to get more attention on the street from fans in Vancouver, and while it signals a tectonic life change, he welcomes and savors it.
And this is just the beginning. If Boeser keeps up his historic pace, he’ll quickly become an iconic player as the star scorer on a Canadian team in a hockey-mad market. Better yet, the clouds may be parting in the nation’s rainiest major city. Years of pushing for the Stanley Cup in the peak era of the Sedins, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler and company naturally weakened the Canucks’ farm system as they won multiple Presidents’ Trophies, came within a game of winning the Cup and never enjoyed high draft positions.
So when the window closed, the franchise naturally fell upon hard times. It had to start over and build around first-rounders such as Bo Horvat, Virtanen and Boeser. The fan base had a tough time trusting GM Jim Benning and president Trevor Linden, however, when they were sending conflicting messages. They dealt away first-rounder Jared McCann to secure stay-at-home blueliner Erik Gudbranson in May 2016. Then they inked veteran scorer Loui Eriksson to an instantly nightmarish six-year, $36-million contract weeks later. Virtanen’s career trajectory trended toward bust as he wound up demoted to the AHL for most of 2016-17. The Canucks appeared years if not decades away from challenging for a Stanley Cup again.
But what a difference a year makes. Boeser, flourishing way ahead of schedule, gives the Canucks their best raw goal-scoring threat since Markus Naslund. Horvat has the makings of an elite two-way center and future captain. Puck-moving blueliner Olli Juolevi, drafted fifth overall in 2016, has smoothed out his game after a shaky start to his season in the Finnish League. And, goodness, look at 2017 first-rounder Elias Pettersson. At 19, he may well be the Swedish League’s best player. He appears ready to challenge for the Calder Trophy in the NHL next season and, as a heady playmaking center, could one day resemble Henrik Sedin or Nicklas Backstrom stylistically.
Suddenly, the Canucks’ rebuild appears on track, spearheaded by Boeser and shepherded by Green, who, having come up from coaching the farm club in AHL Utica, has followed the path of Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper and Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan as a bench boss who arrived surrounded by young players he already knew and understood.
Green keeps a level head, though. He tries not to get too excited over the mega-prospects, such as Juolevi and Pettersson, and also refuses to quit on the slow developers, such as Virtanen.
“We’ve got these young guys that were in the world juniors, and we have to see how they progress through the rest of this season, their strength level,” Green said. “We hope they’re both ready to play in the NHL next season. Then there’s the next step. Once they’re ready, and if they’re ready, what kind of players are they? They don’t all come in and become Brock Boesers.
“And you just don’t know when a player’s going to become his best player within himself. Jake Virtanen might become his best player at 23. And you have to make sure as an organization that you’re not giving up on a young player before he’s reached his max, or make sure that if you know a player can’t become a player, and he’s not going to be a player, it is time to move on.”
We don’t yet know what Virtanen will be. Same goes for Pettersson and Juolevi and even top-drawer goaltending prospect Demko. But the Canucks at the very least have something special in Horvat and Boeser, whose skill sets could alter the franchise’s foundation the same way Linden and Bure, Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, and the Sedins did in their respective eras. Green insists Boeser is “not a one-trick pony,” but even if he’s wrong, there aren’t many better tricks than scoring goals at a breakneck pace. Doing so might secure Boeser his first piece of NHL hardware – and surely not his last.