Former Vancouver Canucks player Jake Virtanen leaves B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break after closing arguments in his sexual assault trial, in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, July 25, 2022. The Edmonton Oilers have signed Virtanen to a professional tryout agreement two months after the former Vancouver forward was found not guilty of sexual assault. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Oilers sign Virtanen to tryout agreement two months after not guilty verdict

Jake Virtanen repeated himself throughout Monday’s media availability at Rogers Place. That he did things the right way. That he let the legal process play out.

And he understands that there may be Oilers fans who will never believe his side of the story if he earns a spot on the team this fall.

“Everyone has their own opinion on everything,” said Virtanen, the former Vancouver Canucks winger who in July was found not guilty of sexual assault by a B.C. Supreme Court jury. “I think that’s important. I think everyone should have their own opinion on everything, that’s why we live in a great country.”

Virtanen was charged in January in connection with an incident in a downtown Vancouver hotel room in September 2017.

He was a right-winger for the Canucks when the allegations surfaced in May 2021. The team placed him on leave and bought out his contract the following month.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on July 26.

Virtanen claimed in court that the encounter was consensual.

“I went through the process and it was very hard. It felt very long, for me, in my heart,” he said. “I was very stressed, and I went through a lot of stuff, but, at the end of the day, I did it the right way and I am very happy I did it the right way.”

Along with much scrutiny for the signing on social media, some in Edmonton feel as though this is a bad look for the team.

Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, says this type of move walks along the same lines as Hockey Canada’s missteps.

“Well, it speaks to me that the Oilers are sending a message that they are taking the verdict at face value, regardless of what the allegations were — which were very, very serious — and just sweeping it under the carpet like they did at Hockey Canada in 2003, and again in 2018, and it’s really, really disappointing,” she said, referring to sexual assault allegations leveled against two different world junior hockey teams.

“It is sending a horrible message to our community of what they prioritize. They prioritize their chances of having a successful team over the horrible message of having someone on their team who’s been accused of such a horrific crime.”

James said there is no path toward sending the correct message unless organizations make it a point to not sign such players.

“We are never going to get to the other side unless we start putting our money where our mouths are and that is, we are not going to associate with anyone who has this history,” said James. “We will not. And that will send a message to others that may say, ‘Don’t think it’s worth it.’”

Virtanen, an Abbotsford, B.C. native, made his NHL debut in 2015 with his hometown Canucks, but he never lived up to the hype that came with being the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft.

His best season, 2019-20, saw him score 18 times and add 18 assists, not the numbers expected from such a highly touted prospect.

Virtanen spent part of the 2021-22 season with Spartak Moscow of the KHL, but left Russia when the war began in Ukraine.

Now he has a shot to make the Oilers’ roster, a team famous for giving players second, third or even fourth chances. Evander Kane was signed last season after his contract was terminated by the San Jose Sharks, and there were accusations — unproven — that he’d abused his ex-wife.

Kane also addressed issues he had with gambling with the past. But, with the Oilers, he re-established himself as an elite power forward, scoring 22 times in 43 regular-season games as an Oiler and netting 13 more in 15 playoff matches.

There is no way Virtanen is expected to throw up those kinds of numbers, and if he is signed, Oilers president and general manager Ken Holland will need to pull off some salary cap wizardry for a team that’s already up against it. And the Oilers have also signed 34-year-old defenceman Jason Demers to a professional tryout.

Virtanen said multiple teams were interested in his services.

“There were quite a few teams and we had lots of conversations over the summertime,” he said. “Edmonton was one of them. I talked a lot over the summer with them, and they were really good conversations. It was a good summer and, after my stuff was all done, we really started to talk more.”

Virtanen said he is ready to turn the page, and is hoping the fans will be as well.

“My goal is to get back in the NHL,” he said, adding that one great impact Russia made on his life was his fitness level.

“The Russian training is on another level. I had six or seven months of that. It really shows. Those guys work hard over there.”

And he had this to say about his time with the Canucks.

“I loved Vancouver and they have a great organization there. I have nothing bad to say about it. I love all those guys still in Vancouver, they were great teammates,” he said.

If Virtanen makes the team, and the Oilers can find the cap space to give him a contract, it won’t take long for him to reintroduce himself to the Canucks. The Oilers open the season Oct. 12 at home to Vancouver.

The Oilers open training camp this week.

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