EDMONTON — “Who are we? And who do we want to be?”
It is the theme Todd McLellan opened the Edmonton Oilers training camp with this fall, and it is telling. It is also the reason why, if he proves health and ability after taking a couple of extra days to pass his physical due to a bad knee, Scottie Upshall should get a contract to spend this season in Edmonton.
“I’ve got to show I can still skate. That I can be a contributor on the penalty kill, and just be a good two-way forward on this hockey club,” stated Upshall. If he does all that, then his skill of “blending younger guys and older guys” will be of much use in Edmonton.
And you know who couldn’t agree more? The most important young player that the Oilers have, that’s who.
“Really, really excited he’s coming to camp,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid said a couple of weeks ago. “He’s done PTOs the last (two) years now and he’s got a contract every year, so I expect nothing less.
“He works so hard. He’s hard to play against. He’s speedy, a veteran guy … he’s kind of everything that we can really use.”
Look up the term “honest player” and there you will find a description of the soon-to-be 35-year-old Upshall. Now, you won’t find it on the Corsica or Hockey-Reference sites, which is not a criticism. It is simply that Upshall’s true value to a team, outside of his excellent penalty killing, is impossible to quantify.
His work is more subtle. The exact areas of subtlety that this Oilers team failed to correct while falling from 103 points to just 78 last season, as its goals against soared and the PK struggled.
Brent Gilchrist. Mike Sillinger. Kimmo Timonen. Jason Smith. Paul Kariya. Shea Weber. Vern Fiddler. Ryan Suter. Pekka Rinne.
Ask Upshall for the ingredients of who he is today, and these are the names you’ll get. Ask him what is among the most important qualities of being a good teammate, and he’ll tell you it is honesty.
“You can’t change who you are. There is no sugarcoating what kind of player you are, or what you bring to the game. What you bring to a team.”
If Upshall, then, is the conscience of a functional, competitive team, it also makes him a guy who can spot a phony a mile away. That player who wants you to think he’s competing — who says all the right things — but really isn’t bringing it at a level required to win.
“He knows what’s real and what’s phony in the room,” said a wise old hockey man, who will remain nameless. “He knows who’s not competing — the difference between real and phony.”
Upshall has forged a nearly 800-game career as a bottom-six forward, a spot that is always at risk of being changed out. Where players play who have been given nothing and earn everything.
He has become a tremendous penalty killer, and a player who gives his team energy by hounding the puck on the forecheck, ostensibly playing defence in the offensive zone.
Upshall has been in the training camp group with the minor-league guys, but was given a stall in the Oilers main dressing room, a handful of stalls to McDavid’s left. He can already see that McDavid’s is the kind of leadership he’s ready to support.
“It’s not vocal. Leadership is by actions: the way you carry yourself; by waking up the next day wanting to be better,” Upshall said. “It doesn’t need to be in your face. The best leaders in our game … just demand (a certain level). Other guys take on the role of pulling a guy aside, and helping him sort things out. It’s a game, but we’re all human.”
He speaks of “taking a guy out to lunch” as a way of passing along wisdom that those aforementioned players imparted to him, over the years.
These words weren’t spoken specific to the Oilers. There was no inference that there is a problem in Edmonton’s room.
When a team falls as flat as this one did, however, it is undeniable that there were questions that could not be answered. That some players talked a better game than they played.
“They would say, ‘If we get Uppy to be just a little less kamikaze, if he could be a little more serious …’ because I liked to have fun when I was younger,” he said. “Over the years I’ve had to take a few kids to lunch, because they remind me of how I was when I was younger. To share stories about how things could have gone either way for me, but I chose to do things the right way. The professional way.”
One of his favorite people in the game, whom he has always tried to emulate, was hard-nosed winger Ian Laperriere. “A guy who bleeds hockey. Comes first to the rink. Great with the trainers, great with the media, great with the staff. … You don’t want that to ever slide with teams.”
Is it old school? Sure, it’s old school.
Hell, Upshall doesn’t even play video games.
“I like to play cards on the plane. I find that’s how guys really get to know each other. Quality time on flights with each other,” he said, knowing he may sound a tad old at times. “I feel I can relate to these guys, given my lifestyle. Been single for a while, never married, no kids. I get along with anyone, and that dynamic — I think — can really help a room.”
Upshall and Oilers centre Kyle Brodziak were an excellent penalty-killing tandem in St. Louis for the past three seasons, exactly the infusion this PK in Edmonton could use. Same with Upshall’s early shifts in a game, where he has trademarked a style that lets teams know that his rink is not a fun one to play in.
That if you’re looking for an easy, hassle-free evening, you’re in the wrong place.
He comes out breathing fire, and sets a tempo for the younger, faster players to live up to.
If you don’t think the Oilers could use a guy like that, you haven’t been watching them much over the past 10 years.