The Vancouver Giants cancelled a scheduled practice Wednesday, Sept 24, so right-winger Jackson Houck — just back from the Edmonton Oilers’ camp — was honing his ping-pong skills at the team’s Ladner training facility.
Houck is a 19-year-old who can be a difference maker for the Giants as they attempt to climb back into contention in the Western Hockey League. He scores, hits and, if push comes to shove, he fights. It’s the calling card of a power forward.
Now all Houck needs is to show new coach Troy Ward that his head is back in The Dub and not fixated on his NHL opportunity. Houck was a fourth-round pick of the Oilers in 2013. Top pairing defenceman Mason Geertsen is also back from the Colorado Avalanche camp.
The Giants, 1-0-0-0, entertain the defending Western Conference champion Portland Winterhawks on Friday at the Pacific Coliseum. The Winterhawks, minus key players at NHL camps, are off to an 0-2-0-0 start.
“Usually when guys come down from an NHL camp to the American League, they’re not very good,” said Ward, who coached the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat the last three seasons. “So I don’t anticipate Houck or Geertsen to be great on Friday. You earn your stripes with me, so Houck will go back to a spot where I think he should play.
“If you’ve been here all along and playing really well, I don’t think you lose your spot just because a guy comes back from an NHL camp. If we were 0-2, or 0-3, I might see it a little bit differently. Right now, we’ve won three games in a row without them (two were exhibitions) so I don’t really see any urgency to put them where they might want to be.”
Houck, listed at 6-1 and 195 pounds, has every intention of earning a spot under Ward. He has been through two summer development camps with the Oilers and two Young Stars tournaments in Penticton but did not get into an NHL pre-season game. He was also the Giants’ leading sniper last season with 34 goals.
The biggest message he received from the Oilers is to improve his first-step quickness.
“It’s the same thing I’ve been told the last three years of my hockey career: keep improving your skating, your acceleration, your quickness and your power,” Houck explained. “So I’ve been doing that and I think each year I’ve got better, faster, stronger and more powerful. I think I have been improving each year and I think the Oilers see that.
“I’ll work on it with Ian Gallagher (Giants conditioning coach) throughout this year. I’ll do the team lift, then I’ll do my own extra stuff. I know Edmonton has a great individual development plan for me and a website for it so I’ll be in touch with their trainer as well. I’ll try to hammer out the plan they have for me as best I can.”
Houck, a native of North Vancouver, has yet to be signed by the Oilers, who hold his rights until next June. To earn a contract, he understands he will have to lead the Giants somewhere this season. It’s his fourth year with the team.
“I’m not really too worried about the contract situation right now, I’m worried about playing good hockey and winning games with the Giants,” Houck said. “I think if I play the game the Oilers drafted me for and just be effective every night, and make an impact every night, then I think things will take care of themselves.
“If I’m putting points up on the board, blocking shots and being physical, those are all things that are going to help the Giants win and help the team have success.”