Oilers’ Kane focused on motivating teammates: ‘You can’t be a passenger’

Connor McDavid notched the first hat trick of the 2022-2023 NHL season, and the Edmonton Oilers won their home-opener by defeating the Vancouver Canucks 5-3.

EDMONTON — Somewhere along the way, Evander Kane grew up.

Today, he is the third eldest full-time member of the Edmonton Oilers, a week younger than Tyson Barrie and five years younger than Derek Ryan. He is entrusted as the triggerman for hockey’s best player, and the player who has exuded big city vibes since he first arrived in Atlanta is now settled into a heritage neighbourhood in boring Edmonton, far from The Strip or the bright lights of New York City.

And that makes him, in some weird way, one of the most valuable players on this Edmonton Oilers roster.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have had lots of different types of experiences that nobody else has,” Kane said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview. “I can probably relate certain messages to guys in different ways.”

What does he tell his younger teammates, from Kailer Yamamoto to Ryan McLeod?

“You can’t be a passenger,” Kane declared. “You’ve got to do something productive. It could be blocking a shot, throwing a hit, getting the puck deep, making a smart play… Whatever. Do something that affects the team in a positive way.”

[brightcove videoID=6313683330112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Evander Kane, team guy.

There are cities out there — specifically Winnipeg, Buffalo and San Jose — where a statement like that would lead to much eye-rolling.

Hey — we all thought we knew Kane, through the court proceedings, the Instagram pictures, and the (usually anonymous) quotes from former teammates that painted a complicated picture, back when Ken Holland took the leap to sign Kane last February.

He’s been around here for a while now, signed a new four-year deal, and though we never claim to know NHL players personally, we have had a chance to get to know Kane at the rink. Professionally, he has been uber-productive — 40 points in 44 regular season games — and behind the scenes, he has become a driving force behind the push to turn a good team into something better than that.

And Kane is happy to tell you, he knows how to get there.

“I’m just trying to drag more guys into the fight,” he said. “You can’t win being soft, that’s for sure. So we have to be a harder team to play against.”

“Everybody tries to redefine what ‘hard’ is. It’s hard, Hard means hard,” Kane continued. “We don’t need to redefine the word just because it’s a different league now. Or it’s a different world.

“If you want to win in the playoffs you’ve still got to be hard. You got to be a tough team to play against. You’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be chippy.”

Kane is rolling now.

He is 31 years old, he’s got over 800 games in the NHL, and he’s been through some stuff. And he’s happy to chat about it all.

His fight card will tell you he puts his money where his mouth is, with career bouts against bigger men like Ryan Reaves, Erik Gudbransson, Austin Watson, and Zdeno Chara. He’s always had an attitude, and here in Edmonton, he’s trying to spread that around.

“In order to be a championship team (you have to have) some attitude,” Kane said. “Colorado? They just had an eff you attitude last season. They just thought they are better than you, and it just oozed from them in the warm up. Tampa? Same thing.”

“They have guys like Alex Killorn, like Pat Maroon, (Nikita) Kucherov… I mean, the list goes on. They don’t care what anyone else thinks. The coach (Jon Cooper) — he has personality. He doesn’t care what you think,” Kane continued. “It’s a level of self-confidence. Self-belief. And when you have that within you, you try to spread that throughout everybody in the organization.”

His latest project is linemate Jesse Puljujarvi, a younger player who has every physical tool, but lacks the swagger and confidence it takes to maximize the package. So far.

“I’m on Jesse,” Kane said. “’Finish your checks. Finish your checks.’ He has so much success when he does that, because he’s a big man. It creates more room for him and it creates a lot more room for his linemates.”

I know — there are a certain percentage of readers who have reached this point and are thinking, “Just wait, Spector. He’ll turn back into the Evander Kane who was removed from his previous teams because of all that attitude you’re talking about.”

That is fair.

But, we’ll also say, Kane at 31 isn’t Kane at 24.

He’s a father. He’s on his first serious Stanley Cup contender, with the chance of a lifetime playing alongside the sport’s best player. He’s been through some things that cause a person to mature quickly.

And maybe, just maybe, the world around Evander Kane has shifted a bit as well.

“The younger player coming in,” he said, “is maybe a little bit more like what I was 10 years ago. I go to Winnipeg. I wear nice suits. I get my hair cut…”

His voice trails off.

When a young player stood out from the crowd the way Kane did, with his tracksuits and money pictures, it ruffled feathers. He still can’t figure out why people cared who he was away from the rink.

“I could give a rat’s ass what Davo or Drai (McDavid or Draisaitl) do away from the rink. I couldn’t care less,” he said. “All I care about is, do you help us win? Yeah. I don’t understand what more you’re looking for from a teammate.

“Connor and Leon are gonna do their thing. But they’re not gonna get anywhere by themselves,” he said. “You need the supporting cast, and everybody has to understand their roles. You’re not going to be able to be at your best every night, but you’ve got to bring something to the table.”

[brightcove videoID=6313680639112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

That part, Kane is happy to help with.

And if you talk quietly with McDavid, he’s more than pleased to watch from some distance while Kane adds some spice to Edmonton’s dressing room.

“Connor is really cerebral guy,” Kane assessed. “He knows how a room runs, and maybe he doesn’t get enough credit for being the type of leader he is in terms of using other guys. In our room, we have a really good understanding of what’s important and what’s not so important. When you have everybody on the same page, it makes things operate.”

“And this is coming from me,” he laughs. “I don’t think there’s one guy on this team that doesn’t get along with everyone else. And that’s rare. Very rare.”

At age 31, it’s hard not to see Evander Kane as a positive influence in Edmonton.

That, too, is rare. Very rare.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.