Zach Hyman's everyman approach proving to be a perfect fit, on and off the ice, for Oilers

Edmonton Oilers' Zach Hyman celebrates a goal against the Arizona Coyotes during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Monday, March 28, 2022. (CP)

EDMONTON — The Hymans preferred to stay in Toronto, where they had grown up and met as high school sweethearts at Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy.

Their families were all there, all fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Having Zach wear the blue maple leaf was a dream come true, almost as great as going to watch him play and then having him, wife Alannah and newborn Theo back at the house after the game.

“When we were negotiating with Toronto, I wasn’t looking at any other teams except for Toronto,” said Zach, who became a free agent last summer. Alas, a free agent the Leafs simply could not fit under their salary cap.

“Once I knew (Toronto) was off the table, then we said, ‘OK, what’s available?’” he said. “Right away, I said, ‘Edmonton.’”

Yes, he said …

Wait, what?


Ed-mon-ton. The three syllables seldom spoken by top-tier National Hockey League free agents.

After Win-ni-peg and Buf-fa-lo, the City of Champions wins the bronze medal as the least desirable destination for those with choices. We’d call it hockey’s dirty little secret, but it’s not a secret at all. Every year when our friend Craig Custance of The Athletic does his NHL players’ poll, Edmonton is finalist as the city where NHL players least wish to end up.

Hyman, however, isn’t your average NHL player. Or your average NHL person, for that matter.

A former general manager in Los Angeles once spoke of the “Starbucks and sandals culture” he was trying to avoid while building his roster. He didn’t want players who just wanted to come to California, buy a convertible, live near the beach and wear shorts and shades all year ‘round.

Here in the 780, there is no "Starbucks and sandals culture." For most of the season, we are a cold, hockey-centric, sweater-wearing town, where it snowed again on Wednesday morning, just one more dusting on April 27.

However, those who are all about the game, it turns out, are all about the city.

“For me, it was about hockey,” said Hyman, quietly putting the finishing touches on a career-high season in goals (26), assists (26) and points (52) in his first campaign as an Oiler. “I mean, first and foremost, it’s about family and making sure that my family is comfortable with our decision. But from a purely hockey standpoint, I told my wife really early on that this was a fit for me. This is where I want to go, hockey-wise.”

Here’s the thing: Not only is Hyman an industrious, buzz-saw of a winger, teeming with grit, sandpaper and skill, a one-man cycle on the ice, an author of children’s books and budding leader in the Jewish community off of it.

He’s also one of the smartest, most sensible players in the game. He is the boy next door, handsome but not model-esque. An everyman among those with the sky-high abilities required to play and succeed at this level.

Where you would never say to your son or daughter, “Play like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews” due to their other-worldly abilities, Hyman’s game seems attainable. He’s big but not huge. Fast but not meteoric. Skilled but not Zegras- or Kane-like.

But perhaps most impressive is dedication to the pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

I’m born and raised in Edmonton, OK?

I get why folks from other locales look at my town and say, “No, thanks.” But I also know that it’s a great place to raise kids, with excellent, nearby schools, affordable real estate, and a river valley and parks system that is more accessible, convenient and awesome than perhaps any other major Canadian centre.

We have top-notch culture, a kick-ass folk fest and, as a sports town, the facilities, events, attendance and championships speak for themselves.

Hyman didn’t know all of that when he trained his eye on Northern Alberta, but he knew what they had in a hockey team. And he knew he could help take it over the top.

“Playing that team nine times (last season), knowing that team almost inside-out, seeing Connor, and Leon, and Nuge, and Darnell — that core group over and over again,” he said, “it seemed like that was a group that can do something. And I thought that I could help that group.

“So, then we said, ‘OK, now we’ve got to learn about Edmonton.’ Is this a place where we can raise our kids? It’s a little farther from home, but it’s still in Canada. Can our families travel and visit us? That’s why we took a trip out here, and my wife got to meet the management, and the coaching staff at the time. Just get to see the city see where we could live. See the neighborhoods where we could send the kids to school.

“Once she was comfortable with all of those things, it was a no-brainer.”

Look, every team can use a stable thinker like the 29-year-old Hyman. He can really play, but he also sees the big picture. He’s a young parent but an old soul, and as the Oilers leaders emerge from their young 20s into their collective prime — having kids, getting more serious about hockey and life — Hyman is like that big brother who started down that road a couple of years ahead of them.

“First and foremost, he’s just such a good guy,” said McDavid. “He’s just got such great personality and he’s so positive. He brings lots of energy to the rink every single day. On the ice, his game speaks for itself — he touches all aspects of our game. Off the ice, like I said, he just brings a lot of positive energy.”

The Hymans have a Siberian husky who helps them to embrace the Edmonton winter. And besides, “Winter gets overplayed,” Hyman said. “It's not that much colder than Toronto. I’m Canadian. It’s not like we’re from California or Florida.”

No, they’re from Toronto — another reason the move out west wasn’t so foreign.

“I was coming from a situation that had the same kind of pain and underachievement, compared to the expectations of where you want to be,” he said. “I am used to playing with really skilled players. I’m comfortable playing with (Matthews and Mitch Marner), but then I was also on the third line last year and I’m comfortable playing wherever in the lineup.

“I just thought that, from a pure hockey standpoint, the parallels were there. The core group here is locked in for however long, and I wanted to be a part of that group.”

GM Ken Holland quickly signed Hyman to a seven-year contract with an annual average value of $5.5 million. When you are the Oilers, and a player of this pedigree assents to joining your program, you lock him up and you lock him up fast.

Because for every Hyman there is a Jacob Markstrom, Darcy Kuemper or Marc-Andre Fleury who can find a reason to go to a city that is a three-hour drive (or more) closer to the rest of the world, with better flights and shorter winters.

A city where winter arrives later, or not at all. With more direct flights home to Europe, or you can go out for dinner and nobody knows who you are.

But those cities don’t have what Hyman saw in Edmonton, as far as the ability to fit him with a Stanley Cup ring one day.

And they don’t have Zach Hyman, the unrestricted free agent who missed the memo on Edmonton.

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