SUNRISE, FLORIDA — The thing about Zack Kassian is, he’s not nearly as crazy as you think. Not anymore, anyhow.
“I’ve had him at both ends of the spectrum,” said Edmonton Oilers assistant coach Glen Gulutzan, who was an assistant coach in Vancouver during Kassian’s last two years there, when Kassian’s life was spiraling.
He was wild back then, man, on and off the ice. Drugs, booze, women, fights… A stupid minor penalty every second game that made his coaches crazy.
He busted Sam Gagner’s jaw in a preseason game one night on a needless slash that defined recklessness. Then, months later, when Gagner was chirping him from the Oilers bench, Kassian told him he couldn’t hear Gagner because of the full mask he was wearing to protect said broken jaw.
He was crazy, at times dangerous, and a you-know-what as often as not.
Today Kassian, who wasn’t talking Friday while he awaited his suspension, gets a laugh at the player he used to be.
“Him and I joke on the bench,” Gulutzan said. “He goes, ‘You know Gully, about three or four years ago the wires would have been touchin’.’ And I go, ‘I know. I’ve seen it before.’”
Those wires, they don’t touch as often anymore. But as we’ve seen this season, they still touch once in a while.
As they did on Thursday night in Tampa, when big Erik Cernak was pinning tiny Josh Archibald — and underneath him, Kassian — to the ice after falling on top of the both of them. Like any player would, Cernak lingered, his team enjoying a four-on-three advantage while he had two Oilers wrapped up.
Kassian knew he had to get out. The wires touched, and while his body was free his leg was still kicking.
“It felt like we were there a lifetime. We were down there for a while,” Kassian said after the game. “He was holding my leg, it was reactionary. I was just trying to get him off me, kick him off me. I was just trying to get my foot loose.”
The reality is, his foot was loose. And Kassian kicked Cernak in the chest.
After waiving his right to an in-person hearing with the Department of Player Safety, Kassian took part in a phone hearing Friday. The decision could be anywhere between six games to life, depending on who you talk to — and whatever it ends up to be, you won’t hear any whining in this space.
Kassian earned it, whatever “it” is.
“I don’t think it was malicious. I think he was pushing (Cernak) away,” said Gulutzan, who — like any coach or teammate — has his player’s back. “There’s a little bit of that crossing the line… But when you’re a guy who plays on the edge all the time, you’re going (to fall) on the other side of the line. You’re going to touch it … every once in a while.
“He used to touch it every third or fourth game in Vancouver. He touches it every 40, 50 or 60 games now.”
Like we said, Kassian at 29 isn’t anywhere near as crazy as he was at 24.
But hockey, with its inherent (albeit waning) violence, values a reputation more than most sports. Even if this latest transgression falls under the heading of “stupid,” long before it would qualify as “tough” or “crazy.”
When Kassian rag-dolled Matthew Tkachuk in January, he sent a message that he’d take a suspension on any player who tried to hurt him or his teammates when they weren’t looking. Especially if they didn’t have the stones to answer when challenged.
He accepted his two-game suspension as the cost of doing business. As a very tough player told me once, “You’ve almost got to take a suspension once in a while, just so people know you’ll do it. That it’s not just talk.”
This, of course, is not that.
Kicking a player, you can’t find a way to justify that. The wires touched, and now he sits.
There was a time that this was in-character for Kassian. But if you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that it’s not, anymore.
“He has a reputation because — especially early on — he was making a name for himself,” said teammate Darnell Nurse. “He played hard, crossed the line a couple of times. People have that same picture of him painted in their head, and they just never change it.
“Anyone who changes, no matter what you’re doing in life, first impressions are remembered. It’s hard to shake that,” Nurse continued. “But Kass, he’s a guy who shows up here every day, works his tail off, sets a good example for the young guys, does whatever he can for his teammates. He’s one of those guys that all 31 teams in the league would love to have in their locker room
“Some things happen every once in a while. He plays with an edge. But you wouldn’t want Kass to play any other way.”
Hockey players love a guy who takes on the role of protecting his teammates. And they always have the back of the guy who, when the stuff starts out there on the ice, has theirs.
Fans always love their heavyweight as much as their leading scorer. And everyone tips their hat to a guy who hits rock bottom, vows to change, and actually does it.
Kassian’s career was hanging by a thread when he crawled out of that wrecked half-ton in Montreal in 2015. Today he has a four-year $12.8 million deal waiting to start next season.
“I’ve said this before in the coach’s room,” Gulutzan said. “Probably the player that I’ve seen the biggest transformation with — in my career — is Zack Kassian. He’s made himself a player. He improved in areas that he needed to improve on in Vancouver.”
Those wires, however, they still spark now and again.
And now the NHL’s Wheel of Justice will spin, and Kassian will sit.
We love a guy who kicks his bad habits. Just not so much when kicks an opponent.