The Journeyman: Tyler Motte, fan favourite and mental health advocate, returns to Vancouver

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 5: Tyler Motte #64 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on March 5, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Canucks defeated the Maple Leafs 6-4. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 5: Tyler Motte #64 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on March 5, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Canucks defeated the Maple Leafs 6-4. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /
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St. Louis Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo’s stick snapped in half as he tried to take a one-timer on the power play. As he took a few hard strides back to defend the counter attack, Vancouver Canucks depth forward Tyler Motte got a quick shorthanded break.

Recognizing Pietrangelo didn’t have a stick, Motte cut inside, put the puck around the Blues’ captain and fired a shot over goaltender Jake Allen’s shoulder to open the scoring.

“Shorthanded beauty!” Sportsnet commentator Chris Cuthbert proclaimed.

Motte’s goal, scored at 13:15 of the first period, was his first of two in game five of the first round of the playoffs. He later scored the game-winner late in the second period as Vancouver won 4-3.

“It’s huge,” Motte told reporters after the game over a video call. “You need production up and down the lineup, especially in the playoffs. Every game’s going to be a battle, so for us to be able to contribute in that way tonight, it was important for us.”

It was a strange scene in an even stranger year. As COVID-19 swept the world for the first time, the NHL hosted its playoffs in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. The Canucks and Blues played in front of a near-empty Rogers Place. Fake crowd noise and goal horns for visiting teams created an atmosphere far from typical playoff hockey. And Vancouver had just gotten a boost from one of its most unlikely players.

Motte was a bottom-six forward who spent parts of five seasons in Vancouver. He was normally used on the penalty kill, like he was in game five against the Blues. Yet, he won over the hearts of a Canadian hockey fan base during his tenure. He was adored by Canucks fans for his hard work, mental health advocacy and his ability to rise to the occasion when he needed to.

On Tuesday, Motte will return to Rogers Arena for the first time since the Mar. 21, 2022 trade that sent him to the New York Rangers for a fourth-round draft pick. After a stint with the Ottawa Senators and a brief encore on Broadway last spring, he’s now with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but what put him on the map in Vancouver still defines his character on and off the ice.

Scoring goals isn’t what he’s known for. In his eight-year NHL career to date, Motte’s highest total in that category is nine. His highest point total is 16. Both were set in 2018-19, his first full season with the Canucks.

Motte was a utility player. He killed penalties, helped stabilize the bottom six when he was in the lineup and stepped up when the Canucks needed him. His coaches trusted him. Former Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau called Motte “our best penalty killer.” In game three of that St. Louis series, he played 24:17. In game six, he once again scored two goals as the Canucks eliminated the defending champion Blues.

“You could move him up to the second line, or the first line and he can play for short periods of time on the upper lines,” Boudreau said after Motte was traded to the Rangers for the second time.

Off the ice, Motte spoke openly about his struggles with anxiety and depression, becoming the team’s Hockey Talks spokesperson, a cause close to the Canucks organization.

He didn’t just accept his struggles. He owned them, and used them to drive the conversation around mental health.

“There’s been times where I’ve just cried, and I couldn’t tell you why,” he said in a team-produced video in 2021. “There’s been times where I get frustrated or stressed out over basically nothing. Now I’ve come to the point where I’ve learned, it’s okay. If you have to cry, you have to cry.”

For the Canucks’ annual Hockey Talks game in January 2022, Motte, instead of a captain or assistant, was invited to take part in the ceremonial puck drop.

Motte’s legacy in Vancouver is unlike that of any other depth forward to play for the team in recent history. His hard-working, non-complaining attitude earned him respect from his teammates and fans. His short, sudden bursts of energy could ignite Rogers Arena in seconds.

Take, for example, a game against the Seattle Kraken exactly one month before Motte’s time in Vancouver came to an end. Coming off a 7-4 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Boudreau started his fourth line, that year comprised of Motte, Juho Lammikko and Matthew Highmore.

Motte dumped the puck in from centre ice, then went to the net as Lammikko and Highmore took possession. Lammikko threw the puck in front of the net, where Motte, waiting in perfect position, tapped it in past Seattle goaltender Chris Driedger.

Eleven seconds in, the Canucks were up 1-0. Rogers Arena was buzzing.

An up-and-down season to date, mired by a coaching change and COVID-related absences, was on the uptick as the Canucks chased a playoff spot. And Motte had given them another spark. He would later add an assist as the Canucks won 5-2.

That goal would be Motte’s last at Rogers Arena in a blue and green uniform. A month later, he would be gone, a tribute video and a few social media messages being the send-off he received from the Canucks faithful.

On Tuesday night, he’ll be back. Once again on the fourth line, but in his sixth-different NHL jersey to date. His legacy pales in comparison to Vancouver’s hockey legends, but Motte won the hearts of the fan base through his work on the ice and character off it as one of the most popular depth forwards in modern Canucks history.

And if Connor Bedard, hockey’s next superstar, says you’re his favourite player, that’s a pretty nice honour.