EDMONTON — Ales Hemsky was the quiet artisan, the right wing to Ryan Smyth’s left for all those years in Edmonton. He didn’t need to stand around before a game and talk about what was going to happen, or answer all the post-game questions about how everything had played out.
“I never really liked to read about myself or be in the newspaper,” he says. “I just liked to step on the ice and play.”
More than perhaps any other Edmonton Oiler of his era, Hemsky would have left a bigger impression on the hockey world had he been furnished with better teammates along the way. He missed the Glory Years in Edmonton, and preceded what’s brewing here now. He had 2006, but even though he only qualified for the playoffs in two of his 11 seasons in Edmonton he never asked to be traded.
“I thought about it,” he admits. “But we were all together in it. There is blame on everybody, including me.”
“I loved the city, and I was always thinking that I owed Edmonton something,” he continued. “We were so close. I was hoping we could figure it out and do it again (like the ’06 Cup run). I grew up there, pretty much. I was a kid when I started there, and I loved it in Edmonton. I met so many great people who helped me. I didn’t want to leave; I didn’t want to be a quitter. I was hoping we would turn it around.”
At age 36, with a body that simply cannot answer the bell anymore, Hemsky recently filed his retirement papers with the National Hockey League Players’ Association. A career that ended with hip surgeries and concussions that turned into a bad case of vertigo left Hemsky unable to play with his newborn son two years ago. That was his golden watch, the moment he knew it was time.
Today, he and wife Julie — an Edmonton girl — are raising Milo (two years old) and Jimi (nine months) in a suburb of Dallas, ironically the Oilers’ nemesis when Hemsky broke in back in 2002, a 19-year-old from Pardubice, Czech Republic by way of the Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL.
“I was 16, turning 17 (when he arrived in Hull). I came from Czech, packed one bag and went over to Canada,” he recalled. “I ended up in Quebec and I didn’t even know they speak French there.
“It was a culture shock. I come there, I don’t speak a lick of English. And all those kids (his teammates)? Most of them, they don’t speak a lick of English either. I would say that 70 per cent of the kids spoke French,” Hemsky laughed.
As a teenager he turned down a long-term contract in Pardubice — where his father was the coach — under threat that he would never play for the national team if he left. In the end, he played 845 NHL games, plus two Winter Olympics, three World Championships and a World Cup for his country. Of course the Czechs wanted him back, with his sublime, European skills.
“That was the dream when I was growing up,” he said, “to play for the men’s league in my city (Pardubice) and then play for the national team. It was never the goal to play in the NHL, because when I was a kid we didn’t have those games on TV. We had hockey cards.”
In 2006, Hemsky scored the series winner as Edmonton came back from a 2-0 third period deficit, upsetting the Red Wings in six games in Round 1. Typically, he mesmerized the Red Wings defenders with a puck that seemed glued to his tape, finally finishing a pass from Sergei Samsonov, two obscenely skilled players combining to light the match on a memorable playoff run.
“There wasn’t a more important player for me during my whole tenure as coach of the Oilers than Ales,” then-head coach Craig MacTavish recently said on 630 CHED. “He might not be alone at the top but I don’t see anyone above him.
“He didn’t always like the day to day rigours of playing an 82-game schedule but when the game was on the line he was at his best. Great player that made a huge impact on our team.”
That Stanley Cup run marked what was undoubtedly Hemsky’s favourite spring in Edmonton.
“Pronger came, Peca came… The whole year we were trying to figure it out, and at the deadline they break in, like, three more good players. Then we had pretty much everything! It was such a fun year,” he said.
Alas, Ales, the spring of 2006 was never to be duplicated.
“I was young. You kind of think it will happen again,” he said wistfully. “Now, you know how hard it is to make it. How everything has to come together. Some luck, a really good team. A really deep team…”
Hemsky regrets that his seven games with Montreal were forgettable, but after years of not shying away from the Robyn Regehrs, Derian Hatchers and Rick Matvichuks of the world, his body could no longer support his game. It’s ironic: at the end he wanted to play more, where in his prime, as MacTavish alluded, Hemsky sometimes looked bored.
“It seems like I never liked the 82 games, every game. But when the game was on the line, when games were tight and guys couldn’t handle it mentally, that’s what I liked,” he said.
“I always liked to play hockey. I wasn’t comfortable with the media, and some other things, but when I could just focus on hockey, that was my happiest time.”