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Kraken draft pick Nathan Villeneuve insists bounty on opponent is ‘normally not who I am’

Nathan Villeneuve poses for a portrait after being drafted by the Seattle Kraken with the 63rd overall pick in the NHL Draft at Sphere on June 29, 2024, in Las Vegas.  (Tribune News Service)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – There’s a clip from the iconic 1977 satirical hockey movie “Slap Shot” that briefly forced Seattle Kraken draft pick Nathan Villeneuve to stop using his cellphone.

“I was tired of opening my phone and seeing the same meme texted to me a thousand times,” Villeneuve, 18, said this week at the Kraken’s annual development camp after being taken in the second round, 63rd overall, in the NHL entry draft.

That’s because late this past Ontario Hockey League season the rugged Sudbury Wolves center Villeneuve, a 5-foot-11, 194-pound ball of chaos, allowed real life to imitate movie art a little too much for anyone’s liking.

In the movie clip, hockey player/coach and protagonist Reggie Dunlop, played by Paul Newman, goes on the radio offering a $100 “bounty” to any teammate from his Charlestown Chiefs that “really nails” villainous opponent Tim McCracken in that night’s game. And for some reason, which Villeneuve now admits was extremely foolish on his part, the self-described “throwback” player went “a little too far” channeling his inner Dunlop last January in an online group chat with teammates.

The chat turned to an upcoming opponent who had delivered a hard, unpenalized bodycheck on Villenueve in a prior game. Villeneuve then admittedly broke his personal code about running his mouth – preferring on-ice toughness speak for itself – when he and teammates “started joking around a little” about a paid bounty.

“We were talking about that,” Villeneuve said. “Nobody was actually going to pay it. It was just kind of in the moment and we were joking about it.”

But a teammate who is good friends with the opposing player relayed a word-for-word warning about the chat. The OHL got wind of it, investigated and suspended Villeneuve for 15 games and another Wolves player for 10.

Worse than the suspension and the “Slap Shot” bounty memes soon flooding his phone, Villeneuve felt ashamed.

“That’s normally not who I am,” he said.

Villeneuve said he reached out through that mutual friend teammate to the opponent to apologize and tell him not to worry. He said he never heard the exact response but assumes they’ll talk on-ice next season and the matter will be closed. Villeneuve added he respects the OHL ruling and understands even joking about such things has consequences.

Villeneuve said he’s a “passionate” player – one who tattooed the Wolves team logo on his shoulder – that stands up for teammates, carries “a chip” and is more than capable of handling disputes. He learned some fighting techniques from a former pro hockey “enforcer” named Ryan Hand at a gym in his native Ottawa and is credited with nearly a dozen on-ice bouts on the website in two full OHL seasons.

Still, he’s cut down on those at the suggestion of coaches, scouts and others recognizing his scoring talents.

He scored 12 goals and added 10 assists in 55 games his rookie OHL season. Then, he followed up with 23 goals and 27 assists in 56 games this past season before the bounty suspension with nine contests still to play.

His natural skills, toughness and fiery play were enough for the Kraken to expend the higher-round pick. They loved the hard-charging, disruptive style of a player that tries to emulate Brady Tkachuk, captain of his hometown Senators, and his brother, Matthew Tkachuk, with the Florida Panthers.

“They’re guys that play physical and love fighting,” Villeneuve said. “But they also have a lot more to them. They might not score the winning goal every game. But they have an impact every game I see them play.”

Kraken general manager Ron Francis said he spoke to Villeneuve and his team’s GM about the suspension prior to drafting him. Francis said Villeneuve was remorseful, remains friends with the player who tipped the opponent off and accepted his punishment “like a pro.”

“I will tell you, when he’s on the ice people are going to know he’s on the ice because he’s that type of player,” Francis said.

Hockey has changed since the brawl-filled times depicted in “Slap Shot,” with the Canadian major junior ranks taking an increasingly dim view toward random violence and bullying.

Even bad language can land players in trouble now.

In May, the OHL suspended Landon Sim of the London Knights for five games after he used a vulgar word during a playoff game to suggest an opponent was too afraid to confront him physically. Sim’s agent later claimed the opponent had threatened to break a sprained shoulder Sim been playing with. And that Sim was merely telling the aggressor he was too cowardly to back up his tough talk.

It didn’t matter. The opponent told the referee what had been said, a linesman confirmed the vulgarity and Sim was ejected and suspended under the OHL’s diversity, maltreatment and bullying policy.

Villeneuve’s bounty language was more problematic. The issue of alleged sports “bounties” isn’t new at pro or amateur levels. But there’s typically zero tolerance for it once out in the open.

Even “Slap Shot” admitted as much on the big screen 47 years ago in a scene where Dunlop’s team manager phones him irate about the bounty threat he’d made.

“A bounty?!!” the manager bellows. “We could all end up in the clinker for this! … You can’t put a bounty on another man’s head!”

And the NFL agreed in 2012 when it suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for a year each and other players and executives for less time as part of the “Bountygate” scandal. It was found the Saints for years operated a “slush fund” that rewarded bonuses for knocking opponents out of the game.

Considering potential criminal and civil liability under such paid schemes, the OHL probably did Villeneuve a huge favor by coming down hard before anyone much contemplated turning flippant talk into action.

Francis feels there was little likelihood the group chat would ever have evolved beyond talk, saying he’d never have drafted Villeneuve otherwise.

The initial suspensions were appealed as too harsh given what actually transpired. The OHL indeed modified both, reducing the teammate’s from 10 to six games while allowing Villeneuve to compete in the playoffs and serve his remaining six games next season.

“I mean, obviously I think it was a mistake that I made,” Villeneuve said. “I’m a very competitive player and I play with my heart. I think (the opponent’s hit) just got to me. I’m not usually a player who says stuff. I’m one that just does it.”

The Kraken are banking on exactly that, hoping to see their newly drafted dynamo causing chaos on the ice rather than off it.