Just six years ago, Chris Tanev was entering grade 10 and it appeared his dreams of playing in the NHL were over.
A lot of kids have that realization, but despite his skills, as a 5-foot-1 defenceman, weighing just 105 pounds, well, reality hit and Tanev was unable to find a place on a minor midget team and decided to play high school hockey instead.
But it is funny what happens over time.
Today, the 20-year-old stands 6-foot-2, 185 pounds and just recently signed an entry level contract with the Vancouver Canucks.
Tanev impressed in his first training camp with the Canucks last month and he will begin the season with Vancouver’s top affiliate, the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
“It was a little nerve-wrecking,” Tanev said of his first professional camp in a phone interview. “It showed something to look forward to, getting a chance to play with players like the Sedins.”
The journey from a high-school hockey player at East York Collegiate to Canuck prospect was an unconventional one, made possible by Tanev’s persistence.
After a growth spurt following his second season at East York, Tanev returned to junior, and once his Junior-A team, the Markham Waxers, won the league championship, he was recruited by the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In his first season of college, Tanev scored 10 goals and had 28 points in 41 games, while R.I.T. had a surprising run to the NCAA’s Frozen Four championship game, won by the Wisconsin Badgers.
“It was probably the biggest stepping stone,” Tanev said. “I had the chance to play in all the situations, and was paired with the top defencemen.”
After a terrific start to his college career, NHL teams began to notice Tanev and he had to decide whether to make the jump to professional hockey or remain in college and finish his schooling.
“The thing I told Christopher was you have to make the decision based on two questions,” Mike Tanev, Chris’ father, said. “Can you go back to school any time you want and is your dream to play in the NHL?
“At that time he realized he was a pretty good player and [that] opportunity doesn’t come very often.”
It was Tanev’s father who told his son to relax and enjoy high-school hockey in the hopes he would want to play the game at a higher level if there came a point when he had the size.
“I promised him that when he grew, he’d play junior,” the elder Tanev said in an interview at East York Collegiate. “I didn’t know he was going to be 6-foot-2, but I knew he wasn’t going to be five feet.”
It was former-NHLer Dave Gagner, now the Canucks’ Director of Player Development, who pursued Tanev.
Chris played against Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, Dave’s son, when the two were younger. Mike Tanev recalls it was Dave who advised him to ensure his son enjoyed playing the game because he had the ability to play once he grew.
In his first year of high-school hockey, Tanev impressed the East York coaches with his hockey intelligence as well as his puck-moving ability, although they were concerned about his size.
“He was small, but smart and skilled,” said Rob Greco, one of Tanev’s coaches. “We made him a coach’s choice for one of the assistant captains as a grade 10 because of his work ethic.”
“He had great poise with the puck, never panicked for a young student,” said Tom McDonell, another coach at East York. “That year we stuck him with one of our veterans because we knew he had the skill set, but we didn’t want him to get hurt. He outsmarted everyone that came at him.”
During the summer after grade 11, Tanev experienced a growth spurt.
“I said to [Greco], ‘did you see Tanev, I think he grew a foot,’” McDonell said.
As Chris begins his first professional hockey season with the Moose, Mike Tanev is understandably proud of his son’s story of persistence and hopes that he will be a role model for the many young kids who are told they will not make it.
“I have a lot of friends whose kids are in the same situation, they now say to their kids, ‘hey, look at Chris Tanev,’ “ he said. “This kid didn’t play for two years and signed an NHL contract in a short period of time, so don’t give up.”