Sports

Elvis takes aim at NHL

 Elvis Jansons celebrates a goal for the Richmond Blues at last week’s Richmond International Midget Hockey Tournament. - Don Fennell photo
Elvis Jansons celebrates a goal for the Richmond Blues at last week’s Richmond International Midget Hockey Tournament.
— image credit: Don Fennell photo

American singer and actor Elvis Presley grew up to become a cultural icon. Elvis Jansons just wants to be a pro hockey player.

“I want to play in the NHL,” says Jansons, a 16-year-old centre with the Richmond Blues A1 Midget Division team.

While thousands of other youngsters share Jansons’ goal, what makes his story unique is that he moved with his family to Richmond three years ago from Latvia to pursue his hockey dream.

“The biggest motivation to come here was to be able to go further in hockey,” he says. “I think the opportunity is better for a hockey career in North America than in Europe. There is way more hockey being played.”

Jansons, who clearly has the talent to realize his dream, credits Blues’ associate coaches Bayne Koen and Glenn Wheeler for their guidance and patience as he learns to play more of a North American-style game—and to become an effective forward after playing defence for the first 10 years of his minor hockey career.

“When I moved here the coaches saw that I was an offensive guy and have a good shot,” Jansons says. “I was used to having the most goals in our league as a defenceman, having led our league in Europe for three years in a row. I liked to carry the puck, but now I’ve had to learn to do that as a forward. Bayne and Glenn have taught me a lot, but they still want me to shoot more. Sometimes I carry the puck too much.”

Jansons is also learning to play in a more physical environment, after growing up in a European system that stresses passing and skating—two of his greatest attributes.

“The North American game is a lot more aggressive, but otherwise the job of a centre is the same. You have to forecheck and back check,” he says.

The Blues’ leading scorer this season, Jansons also paced them at the recent Richmond International Midget Hockey Tournament in which the team was pitted against other elite teams from around North America in the Tier 1 AAA Division. He scored the Richmond’s only goal in their lone loss, 2-1 to Port Moody—one of six goals to go along with four assists in seven tournament games.

While former Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Artus Irbe (now a goaltending coach with the Washington Capitals) remains a primary hockey hero in Latvia, Jansons and other young players are increasingly looking up to Russian players like Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin as well as North American players such as Sidney Crosby. Jansons’ hockey idol is Pavel Datsyuk, the slick veteran centre of the Detroit Red Wings.

“He’s my favourite because he’s such a complete player,” says Jansons. “I find him very skilled and he has great hands. I think I play similar and he’s certainly someone I would like to be like.”

“He’s a pretty good guy to try to emulate,” says Richmond coach Glenn Wheeler. “It’s Datsyuk’s creative side that makes him special, but it’s only part of what makes him great. His ability to play at both ends of the rink, often against the other team’s top lines that are not as defensively aware, is what leads to his offensive chances.”

Wheeler also sees a little of Markus Naslund in Jansons. He believes Jansons has the same kind of quick release on his shot, but plays with a bit more grit.

“He’s not afraid to get greasy and doesn’t lose many battles on the puck,” says Wheeler. “He’s also got a high hockey acumen, but the thing that stands out with Elvis is that second gear. He skates with a wide stance and his change of pace is so good that he can be gliding and then all of sudden be by you. It’s the kind of acceleration everyone looks for.”

But, predictably, there is still plenty Jansons needs to work on. While he has the ability to make others around him better (he takes pride in being a team player), he is still inconsistent.

“He’s got all the talent in the world but at this age consistency is still an issue,” Wheeler says.

“The big thing with Elvis going forward will be learning to play with better players and perhaps having to transition to playing on the wing. How good can he be?  The next challenge for him is important because he’ll either excel or it may be a stumbling block. It all depends on his attitude. A lot of kids love hockey but at that next level it becomes a daily grind. If he stays on course and learns to apply himself on a regular basis, and can handle all the trips, he’ll succeed.”

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