Speaking with NHL-affiliated media for the first time in over 500 days, Jake Virtanen met with Edmonton-based reporters on Monday.
Virtanen, who was placed on leave by the Vancouver Canucks on May 1, 2021, after sexual misconduct allegations became public and was later bought out of his contract, spent last year playing in Russia. He was later charged with sexual assault with a jury ruling him not guilty in July.
And now the 26-year-old is attempting an NHL comeback, on a pro tryout contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
“I loved playing in the NHL and I just want to make that happen again, and I have that opportunity right now,” Virtanen said.
Virtanen was mostly coy when asked about off-ice topics.
“Going through something like this, it was a very tough thing to go through for me and my family and my partner,” Virtanen said regarding the sexual assault allegation. “Going through something like that, you go through a lot of ups and downs and you learn a lot about yourself and who you are as a person.
Virtanen was asked a follow-up question about what he learned about himself, but declined to provide a meaningful answer, saying he didn’t want to get into detail, before adding: “Everyone wants their own personal space on what they worked on and who they are and everything.”
“You do a lot of self-reflection on who you are. You know your self-worth,” he said. “It was a long process, and I thought by the end of it I’m very happy and very grateful I did it the right way and the right process and I went through the whole thing properly and now I’m here and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”
His message to fans that don’t want to see him on the ice, despite the not-guilty verdict?
“Everyone has their own opinion on everything, and I think that’s important. I think everyone should have their own opinion on everything. That’s why we live in a great country. Everyone has their own opinion on everything,” said Virtanen, repeating himself.
“I went through the process and it was very hard. It was a long, long… it felt very long for me in my heart. I was very stressed and I went through a lot of stuff, but at the end of the day I did it the right way and I’m very happy I did it the right way.”
Virtanen’s answers likely won’t do much to change the opinions of many fans who have made their own judgments on him.
“I have to sort out the moral issue in my own mind over the next two weeks,” said Oilers GM Ken Holland, as quoted by Daniel Nugent-Bowman in The Athletic.
“I felt I did alright”
Virtanen was more open when speaking about his time in Vancouver, as a member of the Canucks.
Drafted sixth overall by the Canucks in the 2014 draft, the Abbotsford product has largely proven to be a bust after 317 NHL games, scoring just 100 points (55-45-100).
Virtanen set career highs in goals (18), assists (18), and points (36) in 2019-20, but was a healthy scratch for the first game of the postseason that year, and contributed just three points (2-1-3) in 16 playoff games.
He followed that season with just five points (5-0-5) in 38 games in 2020-21.
Despite that, Virtanen spoke positively about his time with the Canucks, but admitted he felt the pressure of the market.
“It was great being drafted by Vancouver. I loved that and being raised in the Lower Mainland and watching them growing up, the Canucks [are] the team I always watched.,” said Virtanen. “It was great. I loved Vancouver and they have a great organization over there. Nothing bad to say about it. I love all those guys still. We had great teammates and great staff, and a great organization.
“It was very tough though because being a hometown guy and everyone knowing you, it was tough. But I really enjoyed it. There was a lot of pressure on me. I felt like I did alright.”
One of the knocks against Virtanen throughout his career has been his conditioning.
“As you grow older, obviously you mature as a professional and you learn new things,” Virtanen said.
“You’ve just got to make sure, you come every day to the rink and you’re working, and you’re taking care of yourself on and off the ice, and you’re doing the right things to become that player that you want to be.”
When asked to compare his physical conditioning now compared to when he was younger, Virtanen said “yeah, I feel great,” before saying he learned things playing in Russia.
What exactly he learned, and the kind of shape he’s in right now, is still unclear, but he said he’s hoping to be a hard-working “200-foot player” and “power forward” that can show off his speed and shot.
Jim Benning waited for that player for seven years.
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