It’s a game that will take prominence in Canadian hockey lore and for Selkirk College Saints defenceman Stefan Virtanen, last week’s Canada-Russia World Junior Championship game had extra special significance.
Stefan’s brother Jake Virtanen was a key component of the world champion juniors that triumphed over the Russians 5-4 before a packed house at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last Monday night. The power forward delivered a couple of big hits and provided grit that helped propel the Canadian squad to the top of the world.
Stefan (left) and Jake (right) Virtanen are both pursuing different hockey pathways. This past summer, the brothers had an opportunity to be together at their Lower Mainland home during the off-season.
“I wish I could have been there, but I watched every game religiously,” says Virtanen, who is four years older than his only sibling. “It was such a big moment for our family. I talked with my parents about it, you don’t think as a parent that one of your kids is going to play for his country in a sport when you sign them up when they are five years old. My brother has worked really hard over the past couple years and he made the most of his opportunity.”
The older Virtanen watched the game on television with several of his Selkirk Saints teammates at his house in Castlegar. As he did many times in the tournament, Jake made a statement early in the gold medal final when he leveled Russian forward Vladislav Kamenev at centre ice.
“I kind of laughed when that happened… that’s what happens when people try to hit him,” Stefan says of the thundering hit. “This was a big game, I knew he would have two or three big hits and that was one of them.”
A Natural from an Early Age
The Virtanen brothers grew up in the Langley and Abbotsford. Though they played many sports, it was hockey that dominated the scene.
Following in his brother’s footsteps, Jake had standout skills from a young age. Making his way through minor hockey, Jake ended up as the first overall pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft when he was chosen by the Calgary Hitmen.
“You just knew… he has a very natural talent,” Stefan says of his brother’s skills on the ice.
At the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Jake was chosen sixth overall by the Vancouver Canucks. Stefan and his parents were at the draft to help share in the special moment.
“Growing up in the greater Vancouver area, our favourite team was the Canucks,” says Stefan. “We’ve watched hundreds of Canucks games, so it’s a surreal feeling your little brother gets drafted by the team you have watched your whole life growing up.”
Big Brother Leads the Way
As a key member of the Selkirk College Saints, Stefan is a hard-nosed defenceman who patrols the blueline with skill and strength.
Like his younger brother, Stefan had a great deal of success in minor hockey and was a sought after prospect by junior teams. He started his junior career with the BCHL’s Williams Lake Timberwolves in 2009 and the next season headed east to the SJHL where he played with the Flin Flon Bombers.
In the northern Manitoba community, Stefan had the opportunity to taste hockey in a passionate community that turned out such NHL legends as Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach.
“Flin Flon was awesome,” Stefan says. “It was one of the best times I had in junior, it’s a small town but you play in front of 2,000 to 2,500 people packed into your home rink.”
Stefan Virtanen (bottom left) was part of the BCIHL Championship team that claimed the provincial title last spring before a packed house at the Castlegar Recreation Complex.
After two seasons in the SJHL, Stefan inched west and finished his junior career with the Calgary Mustangs in the AJHL. After his final season, Stefan signed a pro contract with the Brampton Beast of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and attended the team’s rookie camp. He was sent to Mississippi Surge of the SPHL, but soon returned to Canada to consider his options.
While looking into post-secondary avenues that would allow him to continue playing hockey, Stefan first considered Simon Fraser University. After making some inquiries he was contacted by former Selkirk Saints head coach Jeff Dubois who painted a pretty attractive picture of life in the West Kootenays.
“I didn’t want to commute to SFU every day, I just wanted to live in a small town again because that was basically most of my junior career was,” says Stefan. “More people come to your games, you know more people, it’s a better atmosphere… it seemed like the right place to be.”
Stefan enrolled in the Business Administration Program and joined the Saints for the second half of the 2013-2014 season. Paired with Tanner Lenting, the blueline duo was key to the Saints winning their second straight BCIHL Championship last March before a packed house at the Castlegar Recreation Complex.
“It was such an amazing feeling to come into a team and being able to help win a championship for the college,” Stefan says.
Pride in Family and Country
Though his commitment to his own career path prevented Stefan from joining his family in Toronto for the World Junior Championship, the two brothers were in daily contact throughout the tournament. They Skyped before games, talked after games and used various forms of social media to stay in constant contact.
Before the gold medal game against the Russians, Stefan offered simple advice to his little brother.
“I just told him to play the role the coach wants him to play and he will get his opportunity to get his ice time,” he says. “Before the gold medal game I just told him to be smart with the puck, do the simple things and try to stay calm.”
Stefan Virtanen (middle #20) is a key member ot the Selkirk College Saints who have embarked on the second half of the BCIHL season.
It worked as Jake made several key plays that helped Canada capture one of its most memorable international victories.
A record 7.1 million viewers took in the thrilling gold medal final on television, but few Canadians can claim similar feelings as the big brother sitting in Castlegar.
“When your little brother calls you ten minutes after getting off the ice in such a huge game, it’s pretty special that you are one of the first people he thinks of in that moment,” says Stefan.
And what did Jake Virtanen tell his big brother?
“He told me that he doesn’t think there will be anything else as cool as this,” says Stefan. “To win a game like that in front of the home fans in Canada, he said the feeling when you are standing there with the trophy and the gold medal, there’s 20,000 people singing O Canada… he said you get the chills.”
IN THE CREASE: The Selkirk College Saints returned to action this past weekend where they dropped two close games to the league leading Trinity Western University at the Castlegar Recreation Complex… The Saints are back in action this Friday when they travel to Cheney, Washington to take on the Eastern Washington University Eagles… The Saints next home game is on January 24 against those same Eagles… Stefan Virtanen has scored two goals this season… Jake Virtanen is back with the Calgary Hitmen where the left winger has registered 10 goals and 15 assists.