EDMONTON — I couldn’t watch the replay of Zack Kassian falling to the ice during a fight last Thursday night. Like, who wants to watch a hockey player’s head bounce off the cold, hard ice for a second or third time?
Outside of Kassian himself, of course, who watched the replay “multiple times.”
“I remember everything until I hit the ice,” Kassian recalled on Friday, the day before he returned to the lineup for a Battle of Alberta tilt on Hockey Night in Canada. “I remember falling, and having that ‘Uh, oh,’ moment. Then I remember coming to, with a lot of people around me. Scary incident. Fluky, but stuff like that happens.
“I came to pretty quickly after the incident. Done multiple tests and everything has come back positive. I’m cleared to play.”
Scores of people — many of whom who would never find themselves on a hockey rink, let alone engaged in bare knuckle fisticuffs — would take fighting out of the sport entirely. The guys who actually play hockey and fight once in a while are fine with the inherent risks. At least that’s what this hockey writer finds, when I speak with the game’s more active pugilists.
One time, Kassian busted Brandon Dubinsky’s orbital bone in a fight. It was messy and injurious. Another time, Kassian busted his hand in a scrap with Erik Gudbranson, who will be waiting for Kassian as a member of the Flames blue-line corps on Saturday at Rogers Place.
Last Thursday, in a tilt with then-Vancouver Canuck Zack McEwen, Kassian’s helmet was ripped off. When the two combatants fell, Kassian’s head slammed against the rock-hard sheet of ice, knocking him unconscious.
McEwen was the first to motion towards the Oilers bench to come help Kassian. He could see his adversary was in trouble.
“Definitely a scary incident,” Kassian said. “You lay unconscious on the ice for a few seconds, it’s tough to see. But when you play hockey you’re on blades, you don’t wear helmets sometimes, it can be dangerous.
“But I’ve been in multiple fights before, even through my junior days, and that has never happened. Like I say, it’s a fluke.”
Why would a guy put himself through something like that, you ask?
Why wouldn’t the Kassians of the world secretly cheer a ban on fighting, so he could just skate up and down his wing, score a few goals, and collect his big fat NHL pay cheque?
I’m not sure exactly how Kassian would answer those questions, but here’s my best guess:
Mind your own business.
“You see an incident like that, and the first (conclusion) to come to is, let’s stop fighting altogether,” said Kassian, 30, who lost his father at age eight to a heart attack, and has conquered alcoholism and drug use.
Today, he has a wife and two beautiful young daughters. He is, by all accounts, 100 per cent clean.
Kassian puts on his pants one leg at a time and leaves the house to go to work, just like the rest of us. He just might come home with a black eye or skinned knuckles, that’s all.
“Me, personally, I think (fighting) should always be in the game,” he said. “Staged fighting? I don’t think there’s a place for that. But the flare-ups, standing up for your teammates… It’s an emotional game, and there are going to be some fights here and there. That’s what makes hockey unique.”
Look, fighting is on its way out of the NHL. We all accept that.
The pace of extinction has been slower than many would like, but it’s dying the same death that newspapers, four-hour baseball games, and expensive golf memberships are dying. Its day is coming.
But while we’ve eliminated the jobs of the “heavyweights,” hockey people fall over themselves in the search for the tough guy who can still play in today’s lightning-fast game.
Fights happen seldom now, too seldom to employ a guy who simply fights. But players who can play AND fight, like Tom Wilson, Ryan Reaves — or even better, a 25-minute top pairing defenceman like Darnell Nurse, who can really play, and really fight — well, these guys are gold in today’s game.
Kassian’s recent performance places him somewhere below that group. But he was a first-round draft pick because he has average to above-average skill, skates very well for a man who stands six-foot-three and weighs 210 pounds, and he could fight like hell. He played on Canada’s World Junior team, remember.
There was a time when, if two players trying out for a team had equal skill, a coach would take the better fighter.
“Not a factor at all,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “It’s inevitable that it’s going to leave. There are so many different factors on (its) decline.”
Speed, officiating, a decline in players who can keep up with the pace of today’s game and also fight, the fact there are no fighters coming from junior and college the way there used to be.
“You used to be able to have a couple of guys who weren’t in the flow of the game but were there for a reason,” Tippett said. “Now, you need four lines that can play at place. Play against anybody.”
As for Kassian, you can think whatever you want to about his motives, his intelligence, his social awareness.
Here’s the reality: He’s a young-ish father living out his dream in the NHL, and he fights three or four times a season — at a time and against an opponent of his own choosing. Kassian has career earnings of more than US $26 million.
If you were him, would you listen to the socially conscious set?
“If I listened to them, I probably would not have made it to the NHL,” Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes; one of things that makes me a unique player all the way from junior hockey ‘til now. It’s given my family a great life, and it’s something I enjoy doing.
“I consider myself a good hockey player,” he said. “I never lace my skates up saying, ‘I have to go out and fight every night.’”
He fights when he wants to, because he wants to.
If that bothers you, then change the channel.