Skating around in his red jersey, Curtis Lazar is smiling. He says he’s happy and proud to be a member of Canada’s world junior squad. But, even off the ice, the grin is constant.
Watching him, you’d think he was privy to some inside joke that’s been shared with no one but him.
So what’s the deal?
“Hockey’s fun and that’s the bottom line,” says Lazar, his trademark smile growing even wider. “I love the game. It’s my passion. It’s my pride and joy. Every time I’m on the ice I like to think back to all the people who have helped me get to this step and just how fortunate I am to have the lifestyle that I do, so why not enjoy it?”
Lazar then runs down a laundry list of people who have helped him get to this point in his career – family, friends, teachers, coaches, teammates and even opponents. If you were jaded enough, you might think it was a put on for the media. But talking to those who know the 18-year-old well, when it comes to bringing positive energy to a room - Lazar is legit.
“Even when he’s on the ice he’s got a smile,” says Team Canada teammate Sam Reinhart. “It’s pretty rare that you don’t see him without one on his face.”
Don’t let the bright personality and smiling face fool you. When it comes to production on the ice, the first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators (17th overall), is a serious threat.
In the Western Hockey League with the Edmonton Oil Kings, he’s one of the league’s top goal scorers with 21 goals and 37 points in 27 games. He won a WHL championship in 2012 and has a gold medal from the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament – Reinhart was one of his teammates. And, even more impressively, at the 2011 Canada Winter Games he broke two records previously set by future NHL stars – one for most goals scored set by Steven Stamkos (12) and one for most points scored (17) set by Sidney Crosby.
His first foray on the ice wasn’t even in hockey - it was in figure skating. Lazar admits, however, as a kid he refused to skate unless he was able to wear his favourite Vancouver Canucks jersey.
“It was a little bumpy because I didn’t want to go out there and twirl around,” says Lazar. “When I was five my parents enrolled me in hockey and I took off ever since.”
Having their eldest son in hockey meant the Lazars, parents Dave and Karen, sister Jenna, 16, and brothers Ryan, 14, and Cory, 12, would all eventually end up at the rink to watch Curtis on weekends.
“They’ve all sacrificed so much,” says Lazar, whose siblings are all active in hockey. “They were all dragged around to watch me play everywhere. They all watch me closely and I always wish I could be more with them than I can, but whenever I get to spend time with them it’s special. I owe them so much.
“It always meant so much looking up in the stands and seeing my family there.”
It will mean even more in Malmo, Sweden, as both of Lazar’s parents are making the trek from their home in Vernon, B.C., to see their son fulfill a childhood dream of playing for Team Canada.
When the tournament starts on Boxing Day, Lazar won’t be in his his regular role, because as head coach Brent Sutter has noted, the Ottawa prospect is a versatile forward. He’s a natural centre, but played some wing in minor hockey, so he says he’s comfortable playing wherever Sutter sees fit. In pre-tournament play, he’s been playing right wing on the top line flanking Portland Winterhawks centre Nic Petan with Halifax Mooseheads star Jonathan Drouin.
“I can be slotted anywhere in the lineup,” says Lazar. “I like playing centre because that’s my primary position – just being in the middle of the ice and supporting the puck everywhere. But to be on this team you’re going to have to sacrifice some roles, so if I’m playing goalie or defence or anywhere – I don’t care. I just want to be on this team.”
He credits his minor hockey coach, Evan Marble, with helping him adjust to the new position when he was playing at the bantam level.
“He’d put me out on the wing from time to time and say, ‘You’re going to learn to be a winger,’” says Lazar. “I owe a lot to him. You come into these situations and you’ve got nine centres but only four spots so to have that experience and be versatile on offence it definitely helps my cause.”
Not that his cause really needed much help. Back in Edmonton, his Oil Kings teammate Brett Pollack isn’t surprised to see his good friend fitting in well with Team Canada.
“He’s really skilled,” says Pollock, who also billets at the same house with Lazar. “He’ll score some goals that for sure. He’ll be a big piece of that team.”
Pollock says he’ll be supporting his friend and watch the games on TV to return a favour. When he was at camp in Toronto with Team Canada, Lazar would regularly watch Oil Kings’ games on the internet – something he did while he was a camp with the Ottawa Senators as well. While the game was going he’d send text messages to the Edmonton staff with scouting reports on what he saw the opposition doing. During their game against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, when Pollock scored his 12th goal of the season, Lazar was so impressed he captured the goal and posted to his Instagram account for all to see.
“I knew he was happy for me, but I didn’t think he’d go that far,” says Pollock. “I think he was even more excited than me – but that’s just the kind of guy he is.”
The kind of guy, who, despite is successes and bright future in hockey, still gets star struck like any other NHL fan. In the summer Lazar works out at a gym in Kelowna, B.C., frequented by NHLers like Josh Gorges and Shea Weber to name a few. When one of his favourite players showed up one day, however, he panicked.
“I walk in and there’s Ryan Getzlaf,” says Lazar, who’s likely to see Getzlaf wearing a Canadian jersey at the Sochi Olympics in February. “I did a quick U-turn and I beelined it out just to catch my breath. I was like a little school girl.
“But that’s how I get, I enjoy the all the little things in life.”