Patrick Wiercioch is coming home.
The 26-year-old defenceman has signed a one-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, bringing his professional hockey career full circle.
For Wiercioch, who was born in Burnaby but grew up in Maple Ridge, the signing is a dream come true.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said over the phone from Kelowna, where he’s been spending the summer with his wife and young son.
“It’s such a special thing, to be asked to play for the team you grew up watching as a child. I idolized so many of those players, so to be given the opportunity to follow them is very exciting.
“To play for a Canadian team as well, that’s truly special for me.”
Wiercioch should know. The NHL veteran previously logged four full seasons with the Ottawa Senators, helping the team make the first round of the playoffs in two of those years.
He spent last season with the Colorado Avalanche, which was also something of a homecoming for Wiercioch, who played for the University of Denver during his college days.
That meant he missed out on the Senators’ thrilling playoff run that saw them almost overtake the eventual Stanley Cup champions the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round. But Wiercioch said he was nothing but excited for his former teammates.
“You know, I still have a lot of friends on that team who I keep in touch with, so to watch them make it so far, that made me very happy,” he said.
“That was a huge accomplishment, to end up being the only Canadian team left in the running. As I fan, that was great to see. I couldn’t help but be proud.”
The spirit of Canadian hockey is clearly strong in Wiercioch, especially when he talked about growing up in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows area.
The local hockey community has been a breeding ground for plenty of talented players like Wiercioch, who said the influence and coaching he received during those years had an immeasurable impact on his career.
“There’s just so many wonderful people I had the privilege to work with and work under, who all influenced me and shaped me in so many ways,” Wiercioch said.
“People like Craig Millen, who opened [the Pacific Rim Hockey Academy] in Pitt Meadows right when I was getting serious about the sport — he’s an amazing teacher, and I still keep in touch with him to this day.
“I’ve made lifelong friends, who I’ll now be able to see more regularly, so that makes this deal even more exciting.”
Those relationships and that sense of community is what Wiercioch said makes hockey an ideal choice for kids who need a physical outlet.
“Anyone who chooses hockey for their physical education gets rewarded with these wonderful people and great organizations [in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows],” he said. “I couldn’t recommend it enough.”
Besides being proof of local hockey’s ability to create all-star athletes, Wiercioch is also part of a recent NHL trend away from big, bruising players towards a leaner, more agile body type.
At six-foot-five and 200 pounds, Wiercioch wouldn’t say his lanky-but-fit build is necessarily better than the alternative, but admitted he’s come along at the right time.
“Teams are always trying to mimic success,” he said, “so when you have a team like Pittsburgh, which is all smaller players or leaner players, and they’ve come out on top twice in a row, others follow that trend.
“You look at a few years ago when Boston won, suddenly everyone’s trying to get bulked up like they were. Now it’s the opposite. I’m sure it’ll swing the other way eventually, but for now it’s good for me.”
Wiercioch will also be bringing his scoring abilities to the Canucks — he was a regular top scorer amongst defencemen during most of his time in Ottawa — who he said were “looking to up their offence from the back end and find guys who can get pucks through.”
He’s up to not only that challenge, but also the responsibility of being a Canuck.
“I know how important the community is to these guys, and it’s something I take very seriously and passionately,” Wiercioch said.
”My wife and I have always been involved in the community no matter where we’ve gone, and this isn’t going to be any different. It’s already gone so well, we’ve really felt welcomed ever since the news came out, so we want to give some of that love back.
“Vancouver has always been my home, and it feels so great to be coming back.”