Vancouver Canucks key on character, take Brendan Gaunce with their top NHL draft pick
'Good parents, good potential, good leadership. Captain material. … There's a really good foundation,' says general manager Mike Gillis
PITTSBURGH — The number will change. The character and leadership it represents? The Vancouver Canucks hope that fits Brendan Gaunce the way Stan Smyl's jersey did Friday night.
With No. 12 retired in Vancouver since 1991, the Canucks acknowledged Smyl's ongoing 34-year contribution to the organization as a player, coach and executive before bestowing on their first-round pick the same draft-day number everyone gets in 2012.
Gaunce, a big, two-way centre from Markham, Ont., was born the spring the Canucks went to the 1994 Stanley Cup final — three years after Smyl stopped playing.
But the 18-year-old understood Friday the significance and symbolism of No. 12.
The Canucks understood, too. They believe Gaunce has leadership potential.
“It's another thing I think I can look back on this day and say I was grateful to have,” the Belleville Bulls centre said when asked about putting on No. 12 after assistant general manager Laurence Gilman explained how Smyl embodied the heart of the Canucks. “My parents always instilled character in us when we were younger, whether it was honesty or loyalty, anything towards the family and towards the group. That helped my siblings and me.”
Smyl had 262 goals and 673 points for the Canucks in 896 games over 13 seasons. If Gaunce gets close to those numbers, his selection 26th in the first round will be viewed as thievery.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said the team came to the draft looking to add a centre with size and identified the 6-2, 210-pound Gaunce as a target. He said he would have traded down to add an extra pick if Gaunce hadn't been available to them.
The wait for Gaunce was more excruciating than it was for the Canucks.
With his frame and 68 points in 68 games this season in the Ontario Hockey League, Gaunce was ranked 13th among North American skaters by the National Hockey League's scouting department and projected to be drafted around the middle of the first round.
“I'll be honest, it's a long time — three-and-a-half or four hours,” Gaunce said. “You always want to be drafted as high as you can but after today, the ranking doesn't matter. It's how much work you put into it.”
Asked what was on his mind as the Canucks prepared to pick, he said: “All I thought of was Henrik and Daniel Sedin and how I'm going to tell them apart if I ever see them and get the chance to say hi.”
He'll get his chance at training camp.
“Everything about him is good,” Gillis said. “Good parents, good potential, good leadership. Captain material. Lots of character and a hard worker. There's a really good foundation, and if we can do something with it, we think we'll have a player.”
Gillis didn't make a big trade involving surplus goalie Roberto Luongo, but did acquire another big player.
Adding Gaunce to 2011 first-rounder Nicklas Jensen and mid-season acquisition Zack Kassian, Gillis said the Canucks will boast skill and size in a few years.
Gaunce, like all teenagers, hopes to be in the NHL soon. His older brother, Cameron, grew up playing with ex-Canuck Cody Hodgson and has spent two seasons in the American Hockey League after the Colorado Avalanche drafted him in the second round in 2008.
Brendan praised his parents, Stephen and Julie, for allowing him as a boy to pursue things beyond hockey, like music and drama. Brendan said he tried trumpet in the school band and performed in two plays in Grade 8 because “before I left school, I wanted to do something like that, something different than sports.”
“He was awful as a musician,” Stephen Gaunce, who manages a commercial insurance brokerage in Toronto, said after Friday's first round. “But acting, he did very well as an actor. He had the lead in a couple of plays and his dry sense of humour helped him. I think acting showed his condence, showed him he can step out of his regular circle and do things.”
We're not sure how Gaunce will be as a player, but as an interview he was tremendously impressive. He spoke articulately and directly, making eye contact and the occasional self-deprecating remark. (“I don't really have that much hair on my face or on my chest, so I'm hoping I have another growth spurt in me.”)
Gaunce seems earnest and mature, older than 18.
“He got older quickly,” Gaunce's father said. “That maturity has been there a long time. He's been lucky that way. A lot of it is because he was used to watching his brother.
“They get along very well. They're very close and work out together. I hear from some of the instructors that they chirp each other, pushing each other. They stay in touch every day, but they usually don't talk hockey because they get enough of that.”
They train in the summer with fitness guru Gary Roberts, who also trains Hodgson and had a brief, public spat with Gillis after Hodgson was traded and criticized by the GM.
None of that worries Gaunce.
He looks like he will be as comfortable in the spotlight in Vancouver as he was on a high school drama stage.
“I hope it fits well,” he said of the Canucks' choice. “I think most teams draft players to fit in their organization and I hope that's the case here. Every player in this draft has work to do [to make the NHL]. I've seen guys go through it, like my brother who has played in the AHL for two years. I see the work he puts in every day. I'm just trying to follow those kind of footsteps.”
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