LOS ANGELES — Zack Kassian is standing outside the visitor’s dressing room in San Jose long after a game in which he scored a goal, his team routed a tough rival, and the team charter wasn’t leaving until the next day.
There was a time when that was a green light for Kassian to cut loose, enjoying a night that would, in the end, inhibit any chance of repeating that strong game Thursday in Los Angeles. But here he is, at age 28, taking some extra time to engage a couple of reporters long after many of his teammates have left the building.
It has taken a decade for Kassian to find his happy place. It’s hard to believe that this is it.
“I’ve done the fighting, I’ve done the whole (tough guy) aspect,” Kassian explained. “Now, I’m playing hockey. If something happens on the ice, I don’t mind (fighting). But I’m not just fighting for no reason now.”
Truthfully, until now Kassian’s entire career has been a fight of one kind or another.
A battle against addictions, which he has licked for four years now. A scuffle with the stain that can come with being a first-round draft pick, when things don’t go the way everyone had planned for you. The fight against fighting, which was always a fallback position for Kassian, though not one he embraced.
“That’s kind of what happened,” he says. “I came out of junior, I was a big guy, tough guy, and I got penciled in on the third or fourth line. When I first came in, eight years ago, there was a fighter on every third and fourth line. You’re lacin’ ‘em up and you’re saying, ‘OK, I’m not scoring goals, so I’ve gotta fight.’
“You start doing it, and it takes away from your skill.”
Today, Kassian has found a hockey home on the right side of the National Hockey League’s most explosive pair, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And he’s found a proper home in Edmonton, with wife Cassandra and daughter Ellery, who turns one-year-old this March.
It’s incredible, in a game where there are so many stories of players who never quite get their golden opportunity, that Kassian has gone from a sometimes spot next to the Sedins in Vancouver to a full-time gig with hockey’s next Dynamic Duo in Edmonton.
As hockey people like to joke, it must be all that clean livin’.
“In Vancouver, I got a bit of time with the twins every once in a while, but never a good, long look,” Kassian says. “Hitch (Ken Hitchcock) comes in and gives you an opportunity, and you find maybe what people were expecting a few years back. Better late than never, right?
“It’s totally about confidence,” he continues. “You start to play with good players, and you start to get more touches. Instead of dump and chase, you’re making plays through the neutral zone. You end up scoring a few goals, and you kind of get your mojo back.”
Honestly, we’ll never know how much Kassian’s career was stalled by his own lifestyle. Or, to look at it another way, what that rock-bottom car wreck in Montreal in September of 2015 did to provide a restart.
It was as low as Kassian could go, and when Oilers then-GM Peter Chiarelli told Kassian that this was it, he was getting his final chance in the NHL, it wasn’t anything that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin hadn’t already told Kassian.
But something happened, and Kassian grew up. This time, his efforts at rehab grew roots, and he found a superstar in McDavid and an organization that recognized a bit of a symbiotic relationship between the superstar and the reclamation project.
“He’s playing a smart game. Zack’s a good player,” says Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “He’s matured as a player. You watch what he does: He’s got skills, he’s got size, and he really helps that line in a lot of situations. He’s a real valuable player.
“He’s a big body who plays a hard game, but he has the skill to have an impact on the game.”
The Sedins were a different animal. Their east-west, freakishly intertwined game proved difficult for winger after winger in Vancouver to assimilate with. Only Alex Burrows truly learned their language for the long-term, while Anson Carter foolishly thought his 33-goal season would translate elsewhere. It did not.
Kassian, an unrestricted free agent after this season, does not sell himself short. He knows his value, as do scouts from across the league who are writing positive reports.
“Every person on the line has a job to do. Those two like to make plays … but they need someone to go get pucks, have a good stick on the forecheck, be physical, create room … And go to the net,” he says, a couple of hours after he’d poked home his eighth of the season from his knees while battling at the edge of the crease.
“If I play the way I can, I think I can help any line,” he says. “But I want to be a part of (a line) with those two. It’s something I’ll reflect on, when I’m sittin’ on the couch and watching those guys win scoring titles for many, many years to come.”
It’s an old hockey story, one that translates to every aspect of life. Sometimes two people, or a team and a player, just don’t meet up when you think they should.
Kassian wasn’t right for Buffalo, when they drafted him 13th overall in 2009, ahead of players like Ryan O’Reilly and Mattias Ekholm. Vancouver got him too soon, where he walked into the Canucks dressing room as the first-rounder who was going to right the wrongs of failed Canucks first-rounder Cody Hodgson. He wasn’t ready yet, to be a good player for the Canucks.
By the time Kassian landed in Edmonton, he wasn’t a first-rounder anymore. The foot speed, the size and the hands that made him a high pick remained, but the yoke was gone. He was simply a project who became a perfect, protective complement to a pair of young superstars.
He can keep up with McDavid, 22, and Draisaitl, 24, has the skills to trade pucks with them, and stops anyone from thinking it is OK to mess with them.
“You forget how young they are,” he laughs. “They’re so determined, never satisfied. I’m learning a lot from them, even though I’m the older one. I wish I’d had my head on my shoulders (like them) when I was 21, 24 years old.”
But he also has something they don’t. He knew hockey when it wasn’t fun, when hanging around the rink after a game was the last thing he wanted.
“The thing here is, we just want to win,” Kassian says, his Oilers on a stunning 14-6-3 start and tied for first place in the West. “We talked about it before the season: we just want to get that feel from a couple of years back.
“This is fun,” he adds. “But THAT? You get in the playoffs, it’s a whole other level of fun.”