In late February, 2013, after the Vancouver Canucks were defeated 8-3 by the Detroit Red Wings at the end of a road trip, Vancouver's director pro scouting, Eric Crawford, suggested team president Mike Gillis stick around the area to watch a couple of major-junior hockey games.
One of them was on the other side of the Detroit River, where Gillis saw the London Knights play Windsor. In the first period, Knights centre Bo Horvat scored a goal and then assisted on another. He had size and played a two-way game. Gillis was intrigued.
Four months later, when the Canucks shocked the league by trading goaltender Cory Schneider to New Jersey for the No. 9 pick in the NHL draft, they used it to select Horvat, a choice backed by Crawford and favoured by Gillis.
At the time, the trade looked bad – the Canucks were losing their goaltender of the future. Schneider now backstops a weak and old Devils squad, while Horvat, 19, has emerged in Vancouver as the first teenager to play for the Canucks in a decade.
Horvat managed to stick on a roster that rarely features teenagers. Vancouver has had the fewest teenagers play and contribute for the team of any of Canada's seven teams, going back to the late 1960s. The last teenager for Vancouver was Ryan Kesler. The most successful were Cam Neely, before he was traded to Boston, and Trevor Linden, the man who last April replaced Gillis as team president.
There have been flashes of potential, such as Horvat's strong showing in late November against Kesler and the Anaheim Ducks – the game in which Horvat scored his first NHL goal. In the faceoff circle, he out-duelled Kesler, winning five of eight, and played solid defence while killing penalties. He displayed the results of the work he put in last summer to improve his skating with longer, stronger strides.
Horvat has had to scrap to stick here. He was hurt in training camp, a shoulder injury, and didn't play until early November. The question of whether he would remain with the club or return to the Knights was answered by his work centring the fourth-line and his strength in the faceoff circle, which convinced the Canucks to keep him. And this week, the team announced it would not release Horvat to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship tournament.
The Canucks, even as they lost Schneider, believed they had a possible future captain when they drafted Horvat. Already, he is a steady force on the ice and is unruffled by attention off of it. On draft day in 2013, his long-term potential was likened by TV analysts to that of Boston's Patrice Bergeron, among the best two-way players in the game, and Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly.
"He represented everything we want this team to be about," said Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman on Tuesday.
Horvat's biography fits the billing. He grew up around hockey in the tiny town of Rodney – population of about 1,100 – in Southwestern Ontario. His dad, Tim, had played a little major-junior in London, where his son would eventually star. Tim grew up near Rodney, too, and married a local girl, Cindy. He was an insulation salesman and she was a hairdresser. They built their home on part of her father's farm.
Bo first skated when he was 18 months old. He devoted his life to hockey. Tim fashioned a "rink" in the family's unfinished basement, using old boards from a rink in nearby West Lorne, so Bo and his younger brother Cal could shoot real pucks with proper sticks. Tim would work on faceoff drills with Bo.
"We had lots of fun," said Horvat on Tuesday, sitting in the locker room after practice here. "We'd always have little drills. It was awesome."
Horvat was part of a strong 2013 draft class – almost half of the players picked in the first round have played at least 20 NHL games. Horvat is at 17 games, with one goal and four assists. He's averaging 10 minutes of ice time a night, helping Vancouver roll four lines, which was a major hole last year. He does struggle sometimes, with low possession numbers against so-so competition.
He is not yet a go-to guy for the team. Horvat and his fourth line are not often used in the defensive zone.
But on a team that has lacked for youthful vigour, the teenager has made his case. "He is a solid two-way player," said general manager Jim Benning on Monday. "Strong in the faceoff circle and displays a maturity beyond his years."