How wrestling helped Kailer Yamamoto’s breakthrough with Oilers

Edmonton Oilers' Kailer Yamamoto (56) celebrates a goal against the Calgary Flames. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Kailer Yamamoto has 18 points in 18 NHL games this season, but production is not the first thing that comes to mind when you watch this five-foot-eight, 153-pound winger play hockey.

Since his arrival, the Edmonton Oilers have gone 12-4-2, and his linemates — centre Leon Draisaitl and left winger Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — immediately began to play their best hockey of the season.

But that’s not what grabs you either.

The thing that grabs you by the eyeballs when you watch Yamamoto steal pucks from players seemingly twice his size, or dog them down and pilfer it back when they take a puck away from him, is just that: He never, ever met a puck he doesn’t think should be his.

“He’s relentless. He doesn’t give up on anything,” begins head coach Dave Tippett. “As coaches, we use the phrase ‘keep the play alive.’ With some players it’s like, ‘Well, (the opponent) won that battle. We’ll move on to the next one.’ But he’s not givin’ up on a battle. He’s in it to the full extent, and sometimes he’ll turn those battles the other way.”

According to NHL.com, Yamamoto, 21, is the lightest player in the NHL at 153 pounds, if not the smallest at five-foot-eight. But the combination of height and weight may give him the title of the NHL’s smallest player, when you consider the rest of the candidates:

Brad Marchand – 5-9, 181 lbs.
Rocco Grimaldi – 5-6, 180 lbs.
Johnny Gaudreau – 5-9, 165 lbs.
Jared Spurgeon – 5-9, 167 lbs.
Quinn Hughes – 5-10, 170 lbs.
Conor Sheary – 5-8, 179 lbs.
Nathan Gerbe – 5-4, 169 lbs.

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Hockey is the one sport that has made a noun out of the word “compete.” So how is it that maybe the biggest dose of that quality is contained inside perhaps the NHL’s smallest player?

Where does it come from?

“Wrestling,” offered Yamamoto, who grew up in Spokane with an older friend named Chandler Rogers, who now wrestles for Oklahoma State University. Yamamoto went to Rogers’ dad’s wrestling camps as a kid, at the behest of his own father, who wrestled at the Washington state championships when he was growing up.

“It’s all about compete, wrestling,” Yamamoto explains. “If you’re down a few points, then you have to reverse a tackle and get on top and get those points back. It’s all about compete, and I love competin’. That’s one of the best things about hockey — if you’re not competin’ someone’s just going to outwork you and take the puck. I love that aspect of the game. You’ve got to find a way.”

Remember that old Bugs Bunny cartoon, where the little dog hung around the big bulldog, always offering to scare up a cat they could chase? Well, The Big Dog on the Oilers these days is getting fat on all the opportunity that this feisty little mutt is digging up.

“He’s got that bite,” said Leon Draisaitl, the reigning first star of the week in the NHL. “That little bit of edge to him in terms of forechecking. But you know, there are a lot of good forecheckers in the league — but when they get the puck, maybe they can’t make anything of it. He’s able to find guys, make the right plays, go to the right spots…”

Since they were put together as a line 18 games ago on Dec. 31 — Yamamoto’s first game after being called up — the line has carried Edmonton to a 12-4-2 record and first place in the Pacific Division. Draisaitl’s production on that unit — 12-22-34 in 18 games —marks the first lasting success he has enjoyed on a line that does not include Connor McDavid, and has propelled him into the NHL’s scoring lead and status as the Hart Trophy favourite.

Nugent-Hopkins, whose season was teetering through the first half, has eight goals, 24 points and is suddenly trending toward the first 70-point season of his career.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

“I kind of knew right away. From when he was a little guy,” Tyler Johnson was saying the other day in Tampa. His mother was the skating coach of record in Spokane, and Johnson — who is eight years older than Yamamoto — would tag along when she taught learn-to-skate lessons to the local tykes.

“I remember Kailer out there with his brother (Keanu), and he must have been, like, a year-and-a-half, two years old when he started. This small, little, tiny kid skating around, and he was better than everybody else.

“Later on, he must have been only five or six when my mom was doing her camps. I was working on different moves, different stuff, and he was pulling them off before I was. He’s always been a super-skilled guy, one of the best players. I always knew he was going to be a player once he started playing for the (WHL Spokane) Chiefs.

“I actually tried to get Tampa to draft him, but Edmonton got him a bit sooner. (The Lightning actually picked Cal Foote 14th overall, eight picks before Yamamoto went to Edmonton in 2017). I always knew he’d be a good player. It’s really cool to see the success he’s having now.”

Yamamoto and Johnson shared a glance last week in Tampa, their first NHL game together. The two families go way back — Johnson went to high school with Yamamoto’s older sister — and still keep in touch back in Spokane.

“The first time I stepped on the ice since, I want to say, I was 22 months old. So, she was my first-ever power skating coach, I don’t know if he’d be here without her today,” Yamamoto reflected. “My grandpa told me one time, ‘To get you to skate sometimes I’d have to put some M&M’s in front of you so you’d follow the trail, and start skating.”

Today, sugar time means a spot on the Oilers league-leading power play, with McDavid on the shelf. After a couple of stop-and-start seasons in the AHL due to injuries, the bantamweight wrestler from Spokane is a full-fledged, point-per-game NHL player.

“You get that chip,” he said. “There are always people around saying, ‘He’s too small.’”

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