This is a story that will stick with me throughout my career. It happened in Chicago, after an interview with a veteran Blackhawks player, a leader who knows everything there is to know about winning.
Raffi Torres had pulled one of his classic predatory hits on Marian Hossa, and the hatefest was on in Chicago for hockey’s dirtiest, most dangerous player. But as the interview progressed, I could sense our player wasn’t coming completely clean. He didn’t despise Torres as much as I had expected he would.
When the interview concluded I put my tape recorder in my pocket and asked the player: “Would you have Torres on your team?”
His response: “In a heartbeat.”
And so it goes in Edmonton, where Zack Kassian — who once broke dressing room favourite Sam Gagner’s jaw with the cheapest of cheap shots, later mocking him for wearing a full face mask — will one day soon walk through the doors as a teammate.
“For a while he was public enemy No. 1 in this dressing room and in Edmonton,” admits Oilers heavyweight Luke Gazdic, against whom Kassian did not even have enough respect for the game to fight despite several invitations. “But if he … checks all the things off in the minors that I’m sure he has to with Peter (GM Chiarelli), it’ll be us welcoming him in as one of our teammates.
“There’s no real process. You walk him into the room. Open arms. It’s hockey. It’s life.”
It’s not only a hockey thing. In these days of free agency, Johnny Damon mixes into the Yankees clubhouse the same way ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward will go to spring training as a Chicago Cub in February.
Now, this one is a little different. Kassian disrespected Gagner, the game, and his future teammates with one of the uglier plays I’ve ever seen, breaking a player’s jaw in a pre-season game with a needless, reckless act.
Then again, the terminally polite Oilers could likely use a bit of gas on their fire, assuming the rehabilitation process doesn’t take the edge off of Kassian’s game.
“That’s what I’m excited with about Kass. There’s certainly a need for a player like that on our team,” said centre Mark Letestu. “Anyone would (want that element), but there might be more of a need here. We do a lot with speed and pursuit, but to have a guy like that would give us another element? Another way to beat you? That’s what you want.”
Oilers coach Todd McLellan easily recalls a similar situation from his time in San Jose. “Raffi Torres,” he said. “He was a factor when we were in San Jose in the final four against Vancouver, a big hit on Joe Thornton, separating his shoulder.
“The villains exist all over the place. When they arrive and they’re in your locker room you have to find ways to put the past behind you and accept the individual for what he is, and that he can help you,” he said. “If that belief exists, then you can co-exist. If Zack … works his way back to the National League I expect our guys to welcome him, knowing that he can help them win.”
There’s a reason that a player like Daniel Carcillo played for five organizations, including two stints with Chicago. Or that the Sharks are eagerly awaiting the return of the hated Torres, as soon as his 41-game suspension is over. Or that Alex Burrows has over 700 games played, or Derek Dorsett keeps plodding along.
No matter that fighting is becoming extinct. The threat of physicality — or sheer annoyance — still works in the NHL. That is why, the more you despise the new guy on the team, the more you know you want him wearing your jersey.
“We’ll sit in here and talk about guys like Torres,” said Letestu. “You’re on notice — you know that they’ll take a run at you. Just the notion that it could happen makes guys make a play a little quicker than they want to. Get happy feet when he’s bearing down on you on the forecheck.”
It’s been a long time since Edmonton has a player evenly remotely like that. We’ll see what version of Zack Kassian gets off the plane from AHL Bakersfield.
Or if he makes it here at all.