Six years ago, as a freshman at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Chris Tanev was equal parts optimist and realist.
According to the defenceman’s bio for the 2009-10 Tigers season, Tanev “would like to obtain a career in professional hockey or have a job in the financial
sector in the next 10 years.”
“I thought I was going to college for four years,” he says. “If I did well, maybe I’d have a chance to play somewhere.”
Tanev had reason to hedge his bets. At the time, he had flown mostly under the radar – of professional and national team scouts alike – and taken a path
that didn’t resemble one that typically leads to being a top-pair defenceman in the National Hockey League and, now, a member of Canada’s National Men’s
Team at the IIHF World Championship.
At 26, Tanev is the oldest member of Canada’s blue-line in Russia; he’s also the only defenceman playing for Canada for the first time.
It’s not unheard of for a player to make his first national team appearance at the world championship; only last year, Jake Muzzin, David Savard and
Patrick Wiercioch did just that. And two years ago, then-32-year-old Kevin Bieksa – a former teammate of Tanev with the Vancouver Canucks – served as
captain his first time representing his country.
But few faced the same bumps – and breaks – along the way. If Tanev didn’t necessarily take the longer road to the NHL and Canada’s National Men’s Team, he
certainly took a scenic route.
Success initially came early for the Toronto native. At age nine he won a league title with the Novice AAA North York Canadiens. (His teammates included
P.K. Subban and Steven Stamkos.)
From there he joined the Toronto Red Wings and continued in the Greater Toronto Hockey League until he was 15.
By then he was maybe five feet tall and 120 pounds, at the most. The next season he couldn’t find a team to play on. He attended tryouts for seven
different Midget teams and didn’t make the cut for any of them.
For two years, Tanev didn’t play high-level hockey; instead, he joined his high school team at East York Collegiate Institute and played inline hockey in the spring.
But repeatedly being told no left a long-simmering wish to return to a more competitive game.
“I didn’t play for a few years and obviously missed not playing with all the guys I grew up playing with,” he says. “You’re watching them play, so it
definitely motivated me once I started playing again to try and get as good as I can.”
He landed with the Durham Fury of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, then the Stouffville Spirit, where he saw limited ice time. Partway through the 2007-08
season, he was traded to the Markham Waxers.
“We saw in him the heart and desire to compete and excel at that level,” says Joe Cornacchia, then the general manager of the Waxers. “We couldn’t
understand why the other team wouldn’t play him. It became our luck and their loss.
“He was the type of player who never quit and worked so hard all the time. I always found that the [the difference] between success and failure is taking
the game seriously and applying yourself, and that kid was the ultimate. He just worked hard all the time – never took a shift off, never took a day off,
never took a moment off.”
His first year Tanev was named Markham’s most improved player and helped it win a division championship. The following year he was named the team’s top
From there it was on to RIT, where Tanev did more than what he hoped for. As the Atlantic Hockey Association rookie of the year in 2009-10, he posted a +33
and led RIT to its first trip to the NCAA tournament and an eventual berth in the Frozen Four.
He was noticed by an old acquaintance. Dave Gagner was then the director of player personnel with Vancouver. Gagner had been Tanev’s inline coach and
before that seen him play in the GTHL against his son, Sam.
Tanev signed as an undrafted free agent with the Canucks and left school three years earlier than expected.
In his first NHL game in January 2011, he stopped a three-on-one late in regulation to preserve a point against the Colorado Avalanche. (The Canucks lost
4-3 in overtime.) Two years after playing Junior A hockey, Tanev was playing in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
“Everyone has their own way of getting where they are,” he says. “[Mine] definitely motivated me, just trying to be as good as I can, looking up to guys
who are already there and seeing what kind of habits they had, and trying to emulate them as much as I could.”
After splitting time between Vancouver and the American Hockey League for three years, he’s been a fixture on the Canucks blue-line the past three seasons.
A defensive defenceman, he depends not on size and physicality, but rather on speed and positioning, relying on stick work and knowing what angles to play.
He’s already been an impact player at the worlds – he was named player of the game in Canada’s win over Hungary.
Despite waiting longer than most for that first national team appearance, Tanev never felt slighted.
“It’s Team Canada,” he says. “It’s the best country in the world, so it has the best players. I just go out and play as hard as I can every day and I’m
happy that I got the opportunity to join the team this year.”