How driven Canucks' winger Phil Di Giuseppe became the ultimate survivor

Winger Phil Di Giuseppe turns 30 on Oct. 9, but unlike players who fade with age, he’s aligned with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser on merit.

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Phil Di Giuseppe’s comfort factor is away from the rink.

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That’s where the Vancouver Canucks’ grinding winger can put his feet up, grab the remote and see what’s on TV. Those nights are far removed from what drives his determination to turn back the odometer on his hockey clock. 

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The Toronto native turns 30 on Oct. 9, yet his motor still runs hot as the hockey survivor easily shifts into overdrive.

This is what happens when all you’ve known in the NHL — outside of a standard entry-level contract — are six league-minimum deals. The Canucks then rewarded Di Giuseppe with a modest two-year extension last March that carries a US$775,000 annual salary cap hit.

For Di Giuseppe, it meant everything to get a modicum of job security, even though he’s been placed and claimed off waivers, but has never lost the fight to forge an NHL identity. 

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As a relentless forechecker willing to do the tough stuff to remain relevant on a line with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, he has earned a roster spot and that rare contract extension.

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Canucks winger Phil Di Giuseppe gets first pumps after scoring against the Blackhawks in Chicago on March 26. Photo by Michael Reaves /Getty Images

“I don’t take it as comfort — every day you have to prove yourself,” Di Giuseppe cautioned Sunday following practice at Rogers Arena. “With my path, you realize that opportunities only come so often. Last night (two assists Saturday) was a good day, but this is a new day to get re-evaluated and it’s the same the next day and the one after that.”

The reviews were good Saturday in a 5-2 pre-season victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

Di Giuseppe’s deployment required being hard on the forecheck, play heavy on the walls, take a straight-line approach to the net and have a penalty kill presence.

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He was strong in transition on a 2-on-1 rush to feed Quinn Hughes for his first of two goals. He then started the scoring sequence on the Hughes’ second goal. His two shots, two hits and a plus-3 rating in 14:49 of ice work was solid.

“When I was younger, I was more of a skilled guy but in pro, it’s not easy to score,” added Di Giuseppe, who had 12 points (6-6) in 30 games with the Canucks last season. “You have to find ways to make it, and once you establish that confidence, you can start bringing out some tools that you’ve had all along.”

Di Giuseppe was on an NCAA line with Tyler Motte and Andrew Copp at Michigan. His 24 points (13-11) in 35 games of the 2013-14 season, under former legendary coach “Red” Berenson, prepped him for pro after being a 2012 second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.

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“It was a cool experience and the way he (Berenson) ran it, it was very pro and very easy to adjust to,” recalled Di Giuseppe. “He got you prepared with on and off-ice habits. And he was a standup guy. He’d tell you how you were playing — good or bad.”

However, there’s nothing to prepare for a roller-coaster pro career.

Di Giuseppe was claimed off waivers in 2019 by the Nashville Predators and then signed one-year deals with the New York Rangers and the Canucks. Last season, he cleared waivers in October and was then recalled on four occasions by the Canucks because of injuries and indifferent play.

The club was looking for something, somebody with bite and stiffness and a certain presence by hounding the opposition.

The found it in Di Giuseppe.

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He earned a promotion from the fourth to the second line with Miller and Boeser after being recalled in early March from Abbotsford, where he amassed 32 points (13-19) in 37 games as a leader. But his 231 NHL games with four clubs proved that he could carve out a niche to stay in the game.

“He’s north-south, goes to the net and is low-maintenance. How can you not love a guy like that?,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. “He’s 29 and I’ve seen a lot of guys who started to play well at that age and continued to play.

“I like him a lot and he’s a pleasure to coach. Guys like that fight every day and that’s what he has done.”

Di Giuseppe’s drive also comes from understanding the world outside a professional arena. His father was a contractor and swinging a hammer all day offers some sobering perspective. If not hockey, then what?

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“I’d be working for my dad,” admitted Di Giuseppe. “He was hammering nails most of his life and moved into an office later in his career. He tried to get me to do some construction and I always said it was a liability for hockey.

“He was always a hard-working guy and tried to keep me disciplined. I’d like to think I’ve taken some of his habits.”

OVERTIME — Tocchet said winger Ilya Mikheyev, who continues to practise during his rehab from February knee surgery, has been ruled out for the final two pre-season games and the Oct. 11 season opener. “He was doing the 1-on-1 stuff in practice (Sunday) and defending, which is really good to see,” said Tocchet. “He held his own out there and it’s all positive for him.”

bkuzma@postmedia.com

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