PHILADELPHIA ― Rewind to last season. It was Nov. 2, 2015 and Bo Horvat had just broken a 1–1 tie with the Philadelphia Flyers en route to a 4–1 Vancouver Canucks win. It was his second goal of the season.
His third didn’t come for quite some time; in fact, the calendar had flipped all the way to Jan. 4, 2016—a 27-game goal drought—before he found the back of the net again.
A switch went off inside Horvat that evening. He wasn’t going to suffer through anything like that again. Despite the slow start, the Canucks’ 2013 first round finished his sophomore campaign with 16 goals, 24 assists and 40 points, far surpassing his 25-point rookie outing.
“Sometimes you hear if you accept being average, you’ll only be average,” said Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins before his team’s game in Philadelphia on Thursday. “Bo Horvat can’t accept being average. He just can’t accept it. He wants more than that. As a result he’s pushing himself every game and every practice and that’s why he’s getting better.”
It’s not often an athlete so openly explains how a slump, particularly one that lasted a third of the season, wound up being the spark in their career, but Horvat has no problem admitting it. As Walt Disney once said, “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” Horvat attests to that.
“To go through a tough part in the beginning where I wasn’t putting up too many points, it was just frustrating,” Horvat said. “At the same time, I think it made me a better player having gone through that already in my career and to have that adversity. After that I think that’s where my career kind of took off.”
A six-foot center, Horvat has turned his lowest point into something far more exhilarating: fuel to become the best possible player he can be. His turnaround, highlighted by his team-leading 30 points and 13 goals through the first 45 games, received a stamp of approval last week when the NHL announced the All-Star Game rosters.
Nestled alongside the league’s top point-producer, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, as well as regulars in Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Pavelski, Drew Doughty and Brent Burns, Horvat saw his name included on the Pacific Division lineup.
“I’m still kind of in shock especially at a young age,” Horvat, 21, said. He becomes the fifth youngest player in Vancouver history to earn the honor, joining the likes of Trevor Linden, Dale Tallon and Pavel Bure. “It was [a surprise] at the start.
“It’s definitely surreal for me and something exciting for me and my family. I’m really looking forward to it. Just to get to meet all of the top players in the world and play alongside and against all of the best guys in the league, it’s going to be special.”
During the 2016 calendar year, no Canucks player had more goals (24) or points (55) than Horvat. In other words, as soon as he broke out of his scoring funk, he blossomed into one of the top players not just on his team, but around the league.
Horvat’s climb through the organizational depth chart has been a result of his unique drive, something that has even impressed his teammates.
“He wants to succeed and he wants to still develop,” said linemate Sven Baertschi. “He just has that drive. He just wants to get better every day and become more and more of an important player on our team. He's done it, though. He's so important for us and he's done it beautifully since he's come into the league.”
A 17-year-old Horvat looked up, caught wind of the situation and jumped out onto the ice knowing full well what was at stake.
His London Knights squad was in a 2–2 deadlock with the Barrie Colts in Game 7 of the OHL championship, having battled back from a 3–1 series deficit. Horvat had already flashed his offense earlier with his sixth goal of the series. There were 22 seconds remaining as Horvat bent over for the offensive zone draw.
He won it cleanly—perhaps too clean—as he sent the puck between his defensemen into the neutral zone. A flick of the puck back into the offensive zone eventually resulted in Barrie regaining possession and heading toward London’s end of the ice with 10 seconds to go.
The Colts’ charge was led by Aaron Ekblad, the future No. 1 pick and hockey household name, who carried the puck out for Barrie only to be harassed by Horvat’s forecheck as soon as he left his zone. London took back possession, setting up a career-changing moment for Horvat.
The shot from the half-board ricocheted off goalie Mathias Niederberger as Horvat, who was jostling for position with a defender, whacked the puck into the net with—wait for it—0.1 seconds left.
“To have that goal with however many milliseconds were left, it definitely helped out [my career],” Horvat said. “It gave me confidence moving forward.”
The Ontario native finished with 23 points in 21 tournament games, including 16 goals, three of them game-winners in the championship series, earning himself the Wayne Gretzky ‘99’ Award as OHL playoff MVP.
“I think that whole series, that whole playoff run, was where I made myself known as a hockey player,” Horvat said. “I was probably playing some of the best hockey of my career during that run and to come back down 3-1 in that series and to make it a Game 7.”
When the Canucks selected Horvat at No. 9 in the 2013 draft, it wasn’t without controversy. Going into the draft, Vancouver held the 24th pick. At the time, there was a bit of a logjam between the pipes, which is why the franchise opted to ship Cory Schneider to New Jersey in exchange for the Devils’ first rounder.
That would be the slot used on Horvat. Afterwards, Horvat told reporters he wasn’t going to feel added pressure of being linked with an All-Star caliber goalie in Schneider. He was more worried about showing the organization he could be “the guy.”
So far, he’s done that and more.
“I am [impressed],” Desjardins said of Horvat’s work ethic and drive. “I like his character. He has great character. He plays hard all the time. He’s not satisfied.
“I think the best thing about Bo is that he gets himself better. He makes himself better. He doesn’t wait for coaches, he takes onus on his game himself. He works at his game and that’s why he’s improving.”
Horvat came up as a two-way forward who operated in the bottom six before eventually flashing enough on offense to warrant a bump up to the second line. From there, his production quickly rose.
In his first season, Horvat had just 25 points in 68 games. He followed that up with a 40-point season in 2015-16.
At the rate he’s going in his third season, Horvat may very well be a 60-point producer.
“He has grown into a bigger role on this team,” Baertschi said. “Not much else you can really ask for from such a young player. His development, how quick he developed into the role he's in now is amazing. He's fun to watch and it's fun to be a part of it playing together.”
And to think: this rise of Horvat’s was spawned from what he calls his most frustrating stretch of play ever. As anyone who has ever been around him would attest, that’s not too surprising since Horvat, after all, will never settle for anything but being the best.