Despite young age, Wouters a natural leader for Canucks

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Patrick Williams

A second-year pro captain?

Abbotsford Canucks defenseman Christian Wolanin admitted to surprise when he heard the news going into the club’s season-opening weekend back in October. New to the Vancouver Canucks organization after signing as a free agent last summer, Wolanin had barely even gotten to know Chase Wouters, now his new captain with the AHL club.

What is so special about this Wouters guy anyway?

“I think he’s just as pure a leader as it gets,” Wolanin said. “After just being around him on our first road trip of the year, you see why he’s a leader. Just his play style and the way he approaches every day.”

Wouters, 22, came to Abbotsford as the first player to sign an AHL contract with the club back in July 2021, shortly after Vancouver had brought its AHL affiliation west from Utica. Last season as an AHL rookie, Wouters played 60 games and finished with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists). He made a quick impression on the Vancouver organization with diligent, hard-nosed play and was signed to a new two-year extension on an AHL deal last June.

Setting up an AHL affiliation an hour from downtown Vancouver had satisfied a major organizational objective for the Canucks. The geographical convenience made keeping tabs on prospects with Abbotsford much easier, and it simplified the movement of those prospects to and from the NHL roster. Helping to anchor the roster with character players like Wouters quickly gave the Abbotsford operation stability, and the club ended up going 39-23-5-1 in a competitive Pacific Division.

Jeremy Colliton, who also came aboard last summer as Abbotsford’s new head coach, quickly saw what the organization liked so much about Wouters.

“He sets such a standard for our group with his work ethic and his competitiveness,” Colliton said. “He’s willing to do anything to win. He really cares about his teammates. He wants them to do well.”

Added Colliton: “He brings energy every day.” And that is no small thing for a club like Abbotsford that deals with tough Western Conference travel and extended road trips.

Wouters already had ample experience handling a captaincy from his days in the Western Hockey League with the Saskatoon Blades. Named a captain at age 18, Wouters held the honor for three seasons, becoming the longest-tenured captain in that club’s extensive history. The Blades also fit to retire his number 44 after his WHL career wrapped up after the 2020-21 season.

“One thing in junior I always focused on was showing up at the rink every day and bringing a positive attitude,” Wouters recalled. “There’s a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, and I think if I can show up every day with a smile on my face, and that’s kind of who I am, it wears off on guys.

“Just trying to keep things positive around the rink and around the room and be a good teammate.”

Still, captaining a professional club is a much different task than what Wouters faced in the WHL. Junior life is a world in which getting drafted by a National Hockey League club, schoolwork, and other teenage worries dominate. A pro dressing room features players with years of experience, families, contract concerns, and other considerations.

Wouters has had to learn and then navigate that pro world with just a season-plus of time within it. Fortunately for him, he is not alone. The organization has also surrounded Wouters with a strong veteran support base in Abbotsford that includes Wolanin, Guillaume Brisebois, Justin Dowling, Phil Di Giuseppe and Noah Juulsen among others.

“There are a lot of good guys in the room,” said Wouters.

Abbotsford holds down fourth place in the Pacific Division at 22-12-2-2, and is coming off a spirited three-game set with the Calgary Wranglers that was highlighted by Saturday’s contest in front of a capacity crowd of 7,081 fans, the largest ever for a game at Abbotsford Centre. Up next for the Canucks is another difficult test with the North Division-leading Toronto Marlies in town for games Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mired in a 7-7-1-1 start to the season, Colliton and the Abbotsford dressing room expected more as November came to a close.

They are 15-5-1-1 since then.

“We were starting to do the right things in practice,” Wouters said, “and it was really showing in our game. I think our practice habits are something that we’re keeping up on and making sure that everyone’s doing the right things around the rink.

“All of that stuff comes back in good ways.”

Over the first half of the season, Wouters has set that standard both in practice and games, and his teammates have noticed.

“There’s not a guy that’s more deserving of that responsibility in that role,” Wolanin said. “He’s done an amazing job of really leading this group in his actions every single day. To be on a team that’s led by somebody like Chase, it’s a really cool thing.”