UNDER normal circumstances a player like Jackson Houck may not be on the radar for many casual hockey fans in the Lower Mainland but this year, with the NHL locked out, the North Vancouverite may be in for a lot more exposure.
Houck, a 17-year-old second-year forward with the WHL's Vancouver Giants, sped out of the gates to open the regular season last weekend, notching four points and a plus-2 rating to lead his team in both categories following the club's first two games. Unfortunately for the Giants both games, played in a home-and-home series against Victoria, ended as losses. Houck, however, said he already feels like he's taken a big step forward following a rookie campaign in which he scored 20 points in 53 games with a plus-15 rating.
"I'm definitely a lot more confident. I feel I can play with the bigger, faster guys at this level," he told the North Shore News Monday after practising at the team's facility in Ladner. "I'd like to be a contributor offensively, a top-six forward, but still play my game which is playing hard, physical and going to the net hard."
If Houck continues to rack up points he may find himself the centre of attention in a hockey-starved community looking for a good game to watch. He and the rest of the Giants have already noticed an increase in attention now that they've started their season while the NHL and NHLPA are still arguing over escrows and salary floors.
"There's a little more media attention than usual, a lot more news coming over to talk to the players," said Houck. "I think everyone is excited, to be honest. Maybe the nerves were there the first game but the nerves will go away after this second weekend here and we'll just be more excited to play every time. There should be a lot of people there."
Giants head coach Don Hay, a man who's worked through a few NHL lockouts in his many years in the game, said the added attention that comes to junior leagues when the professionals are not playing can be more of a curse than a blessing.
"The lockout brings a lot of attention to the team, brings a lot of attention to the top players - it can be good, it can also be harmful if those players don't live up to those types of expectations," he said, adding that when teams like the Canucks aren't playing, the glare of the media spotlight can shine harshly on teams like the Giants.
"For some young players, to deal with the NHL mentality of the media is a little bit different. It's something that they have to be prepared for and grow with," he said.
"I don't know if they deserve that type of coverage. The Canucks are a professional team - we know we're going to get that type of attention because they need something to talk about. The media are going to be looking for something - hockey people are going to write. The media is going to pay attention to our team. I'm just saying that sometimes they're not quite ready for that as young players. Just like hockey skills, there's social skills that they have to be ready for and adjust to."
Houck, a Grade 12 student who is eligible for the NHL draft at the end of this season, said he'll do his best to handle whatever new scrutiny, positive or negative, comes his way this year thanks to the lockout.
"If (criticism) does come I try not to worry about it," he said. "I try to stay to the game plan that Don gives us, play the same game that he wants us to play and just not worry about anything else except getting wins."
Hay doesn't want to put the weight of any undo expectations on Houck this season but did say that he expects him to continue to grow both in physical size and in prominence with the team.
"Last year he was 16 so everything was new to him in the league," he said. "I think he took what he learned last year and he had a good summer of getting better as far as his training program. He got a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little quicker - all things he needs to do in the summertime to become a better player. He's gotten off to a good start because of the work that he put in during the summer."
When he's playing well, Houck can be an impact player for the team, said Hay.
"When he plays well he's a bigbody guy who can take the puck to the net," he said. "To me it's all about improvement. To continue to grow and continue to mature and continue to have good details in his game - that's really important. I don't put a number on how many goals I want to see because I think that some expectations can really wear people down. For me it's becoming a consistent player that we can count on every night."
One of Houck's main goals for the season is to get drafted by an NHL team at the end of it. The North Shore Winter Club product does have the potential to make it as a pro, said Hay.
"It depends a lot on how he improves. If he continues to grow and get stronger he's got lots of potential to go on to the next level. That takes time and that takes a great attitude and a great work ethic to get to the next level. He's shown a big improvement in his first year and we expect the same thing in his second year."
With the draft looming and the potential for lockout-weary fans and media to focus ever more intently on Houck and his teammates, the young Giant said he's going to just keep working hard and playing his powerforward style of hockey.
"I like to hit, play physical, get under guys' skin but also at the same time I like to be an offensive contributor," he said. "I'd like to get drafted by the end but I don't really worry about that right now.
Houck and the Giants will have a pair of home games this weekend to try and break into the win column. Everett will be in town Friday with a 7: 30 p.m. start and Spokane will visit Pacific Coliseum Sunday for a 4 p.m. game.