It is a most unusual answer in a hockey dressing room where responses tend to be so evasive and practised they are not even worth jotting down.
But this is what Elias Pettersson says when he is challenged on what might seem a bit of a stretch when he claims he’s “living my dream, playing in Vancouver.”
When he was a child just starting out on skates in Sundsvall, surely his dream was to play for one of the big Swedish teams – Djurgardens, Frolunda, Brynas – or possibly one of the NHL’s original six, one of which, the Toronto Maple Leafs, his Vancouver Canucks are scheduled to play Saturday night in Toronto.
He smiles and shakes his head, no: “I was five years old and had a Vancouver T-shirt … Google it.”
And so we did.
Sure enough, there he is. He may stand 6-foot-2 today, but he looks much the same at 20 as he did at 5: a skinny little kid who cannot possibly be the rookie sensation of the 2018-19 NHL season.
And yet he is. His remarkable three-goal performance in Ottawa against the Senators on Wednesday – including the overtime winner in the 4-3 victory for the Canucks – moved him to 22 goals on the season, seven of them game winners, and a points total of 42 that left him 17 points ahead of second-place Colin White and 22 in front of third-place Brady Tkachuk, both of whom play for the Senators.
In Montreal the following night, he was again the centre of attention – controlling the puck, getting a partial breakaway – until halfway through the game, a 2-0 loss for the Canucks, when he fell to the ice with Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkoniemi and had to leave the game with an injury to his right knee.
Vancouver head coach Travis Green thought Kotkoniemi had hooked Pettersson before falling onto him, but did not consider it a “dirty play.” Vancouver fans, of course, quite disagreed. No matter, Pettersson was declared doubtful for the Toronto game.
That’s unfortunate, as this Vancouver midseason tour of the east – Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto – was giving elderly eastern sportswriters who can no longer stay up past 10 p.m. a chance to see live the Western Conference name they are almost certainly to be checking off come voting time for the league’s top rookie.
Some are even thinking bigger. TSN’s Elliotte Friedman offered his “bold prediction for 2019” on a recent Hockey Night in Canada panel: Vancouver, having missed the playoffs four years in a row, this time making it – and “… if they get in, not only is Pettersson going to win the Calder, but he’s going to be getting MVP votes.”
Doug MacLean, the former NHL coach and general manager who now does game analysis for Sportsnet, says that Pettersson is such a special talent that the Canucks received an instant “franchise player” when no one really expected it. Pettersson, after all, was passed over by four other teams before Vancouver selected fifth in the 2017 amateur draft. (Nico Hischier was chosen first over all by the New Jersey Devils.)
“Pettersson comes to this perceived weaker team,” says MacLean, who has done multiple Canucks games this season, “and he becomes their franchise player almost immediately.”
MacLean marvels at the 20-year-old’s defensive game as well as his obvious offensive abilities. “That,” MacLean says, “is what has coaches drooling.”
Certainly, in Ottawa, Pettersson was everything and more than advertised. His first NHL hat trick involved three rocketlike shots that seemed impossible to come from such a slight 176-pound player.
He was noticeable from the very first shift, flying off the bench and calling for the puck, which he picked up back of the Vancouver net, then speeding down the left side so quickly three Ottawa defenders looked like stuck tabletop players as he flew past them and fired a quick shot that very nearly caught a top corner.
He was critical to all four of Vancouver’s goals, working the point on the power play to keep the play alive and originating an intricate tic-tac-toe passing play that led to Sven Baertschi opening the scoring. No assist for Pettersson on the play, but then came the natural hat trick that caused the Senators to lose their sixth game in a row. The win allowed the Canucks to move within a point of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference. Most pre-season experts predicted that Vancouver would miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, and they still could, but a more certain prediction is that the future looks bright with the likes of Pettersson, 21-year-old Brock Boeser, 23-year-old Bo Horvat and 22-year-old Jake Virtanen all coming into their own.
The Montreal injury was Pettersson’s second of the season. At the start of the season, he was slammed hard to the ice by Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson. Matheson was suspended for two games; Pettersson missed six with a concussion.
He came back strongly enough to be chosen NHL rookie of the month for October and was again chosen rookie of the month for December on Wednesday. It was the same day he scored his first hat trick, the same day he was – no surprise – selected to the NHL all-star game. The all-star game is set for Jan. 26 in San Jose.
“Big day for him,” head coach Green said. “He gets a hat trick, all-star selection. He was dialled in – he’s just getting better.”
As Pettersson says, “living my dream.”
You could look it up.