Q&A: Zach Hyman on Olympics, Maple Leafs, McDavid, Spezza suspension

Jeff Marek joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the state of the NHL and whether players are still planning on playing in the Olympics in February, following the announcement of new quarantine protocols and recent COVID outbreaks around the league.

Zach Hyman could well go down as both the one Kyle Dubas got — and the one that got away.

A workhorse in a city that loves its blue-collar players but charges white-collar prices, Hyman’s six seasons in the Six stand as a shining example of making the most of your opportunity.

When the other top-six forwards around him pressed for raises as restricted free agents, Hyman quietly took less and did more.

Once slagged for stone hands, the fifth-rounder Dubas stole from the Panthers turned himself into a 20-goal man.

Versatile talents able and willing to play both special teams or anywhere in the lineup are difficult to find, so it was of little surprise that, when the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t want to pay market price, Hyman had suitors elsewhere.

The 29-year-old has struck up quick chemistry in Edmonton, where the Oilers await Hyman’s former club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tuesday — the first of two meetings this month.

Hyman will miss the first anticipated tilt after suffering a shoulder injury Saturday.

We recently caught up with Hyman over the phone to chat Toronto, Edmonton, dad life, and the possibility of pulling on another Maple Leaf sweater come February.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

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SPORTSNET: Have you allowed yourself to think about what it will be like facing your old team?

ZACH HYMAN: I haven’t really thought about it. I think more about the one in Toronto — that one will be interesting. It’s kinda nice they come here first and I can experience it at home in Edmonton rather than the whole… it’ll be a little overwhelming when I get back to Toronto. I don’t know what to feel, you know?

SN: Are there still guys on the team you stay in touch with?

ZH: Yeah, 100 per cent. I talk to those guys a lot. I mean, I played with them for so long. Built some really strong friendships over there. So, we stay in touch a lot.

SN: Who are you closest with on the Leafs?

ZH: I’m close with a lot of the guys. I probably talk to Spezz the most. We talk about lots of things, hockey included. A great guy; I got to know him a lot.

SN: What did you think of his suspension? The length of it shocked people here.

ZH: You never know with suspensions, and I was a little surprised. He’s played 1,200 games and has no history of doing anything like that. But like I said, I got suspended before [two games for interference on Charlie McAvoy in 2018]. You never know when once you get that call.

SN: What is that feeling like? When you went through your hearing, were you angry? Disappointed? Do you get mad at yourself for making a mistake? What goes through a player’s mind during that process?

ZH: It’s frustrating. You don’t have control over the situation. You can perceive it one way, and on the other side, they think you’re thinking a different thing when you’re not. They can tell you what they think you’re thinking in the moment when they don’t know what you’re thinking in the moment. So it’s frustrating but just part of the process.

SN: So, how’s life in Edmonton? What are the biggest differences day-to-day?

ZH: A lot more quiet for me and my wife [Alannah] and our son, Theo. In Toronto, we have all of our family there, both sides. So we’d always be busy with family and friends. Here, it’s way more quiet. Just us and the team. And it’s been really nice for the stage of life that I’m in, to be able to spend a lot more time with my family and focus on hockey. It’s been a nice transition.

SN: How old is Theo now?

ZH: He’s turning one on the 18th. Very soon.

SN: Wow. Big day. Is he a mellow baby?

ZH: He is not mellow. He’s very energetic, very happy. Loud. Loves to play and move around and (is) always on the go.

SN: Shove a mini stick in his hand yet?

ZH: Oh, yeah. He takes two mini sticks and bangs them against each other. He’s a big fan of mini sticks.

SN: Nice. So, at what point did it really sink in? OK, I’m an Oiler now. I’m no longer a Leaf.

ZH: Right after I signed. I stopped training at the Ford [Performance] Centre. I’d been going there religiously every day since I was traded [from Florida]. I trained there in the summer. I’d stay in Toronto year-round. So, I went and started training with a bunch of the Oiler guys over at Gary Roberts’ gym. And a couple of times I caught myself going in the wrong direction down University toward the Gardiner when I was supposed to be going up the DVP the other way. It hit me like, oh, man, I’m out of the routine. I’m not on the Leafs, obviously.

SN: Describe your emotions joining a new group of guys after all those years.

ZH: Excited about the opportunity. I wanted to go to Edmonton for a number of reasons. Excited about the opportunity to play with pretty good players over there. Got to train with Connor [McDavid]. I was excited to get to know him and Darnell [Nurse] in the summer. And then you want to make a good impression early on in the year. Those guys were familiar with me because we played against Edmonton so many times last year in that North Division, and I was more familiar with them. But you definitely want it to be a smooth transition and give yourself an opportunity to have success early and hope that the team has success. I was fortunate that both worked out pretty well.

SN: How do you flip that switch? There was a decent rivalry in the North Division, and you seemed to take pride in the night you shut Connor and Leon down.

ZH: It’s nice we’re back to normal divisions and we’re not in the same division.

SN: I’m sure you get asked about Connor all the time, but is there anything you learned about him that you didn’t already know from facing him?

ZH: How motivated he is to get better every day. How hard he works every day in the gym off the ice, and on the ice, to get better. I mean, he’s already the best player in the world, and he’s doing everything he can to widen the gap and to make sure that nobody passes him. He’s just so motivated on both ends of the puck.

SN: Is there any Oiler you kinda disliked or had tough battles with but once you got to know him, you came to really enjoy?

ZH: I wouldn’t say dislike. Just on the ice you notice guys who are really hard to play against. Darnell and I used to get in a lot of battles. I mean, he plays half the game. So, he’s a tough competitor, and he’s one of the guys I trained with in the summer. Getting to know him, I think we’re both glad we’re on the same team.

SN: How would you describe Darnell, his personality?

ZH: Similar to Connor, in the sense the guy just works so hard. His worth ethic is second to none. Personality-wise, he’s a great, great guy to be around. Cares about his teammates. Wants to get better himself every day. Just a really solid dude.

SN: How much did it help having Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci on the team, a couple of guys you already played with?

ZH: A huge help. More so for my wife to get to know the other girls on the team and the other wives — to have people that she knows. Because for me, when you play hockey, you get to know a bunch of people just by playing, and I went and trained with a bunch of those guys, so I didn’t have that welcoming moment. I already felt part of the smaller group, then the bigger group. So, it was an easier transition for me. For my wife, it was easy because the wives here are awesome. Once you already have those connections, it makes it easier.

SN: Why did you burst of the gate on fire?

ZH: Just being comfortable with the group. I’ve played a lot of games [371] in the league. I’m really comfortable with what I can do. When I was with Toronto, I played with so many different players and so many different lines, and here we shuffle the lines a lot. So it’s just playing the same way, no matter who you’re playing with — and having the confidence in your ability that you can play with really good players.

SN: Philosophically, do you see a difference between how Sheldon Keefe sees the game versus Dave Tippett?

ZH: Every coach is different. Babs [Mike Babcock] is different from Sheldon, and Sheldon is different from Tip. Every coach brings their own unique eyes and mind to the game. Tip’s been around in the league for so long. He’s a veteran coach, and he really understands players. They all want to play the same way, which starts with work ethic and determination. But without getting into detail, their systems are a little different.

SN: When you look at your evolution as a player, how you’ve gone from straight lines to holding the puck more and creating, how much was that coaching? Or was it you determined to evolve your skill?

ZH: I think it’s a combination. The more you play in the league and the more you feel comfortable in the league, the more you trust in your abilities to go outside the box and make plays and take more risks. When you hold onto the puck and you try to make a play, there’s always a chance it goes the other way and there’s a turnover. So, early on in my career I was more about being safe and getting the puck in and going to work. I can still go and do that. But now I’m more comfortable and confident to hold on to it and look to make a play first, before getting rid of it.

SN: Have you noticed that any difference in the Western Conference style of play?

ZH: You have Calgary and Dallas and even L.A. to an extent, they’re playing the 1-3-1 where they sit back and let you make mistakes. There’s some heavier teams in the West, but you play both conferences.

SN: Off the ice, have you found some favourite spots or things to do in Edmonton?

ZH: The dog parks are really awesome. I have a Siberian Husky, Lady, who loves the weather out here and loves the dog park. It’s fun to see her enjoy that. And there’s some great coffee shops and restaurants here.

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SN: Coffee gang. Oh, what did you think of the All or Nothing series? Did you watch it?

ZH: I watched two episodes, and that was it for me.

SN: Did you feel like it was an accurate portrayal of the team?

ZH: I didn’t watch the whole thing, so I can’t give you a full, detailed comment. It was only [five] episodes; they cut it down pretty good. And obviously it wasn’t a happy ending, so it wasn’t a feel-good story. I didn’t want to watch it all over again. I felt like it could’ve been more personal and you got to know the players a little more. It is what it is.

SN: At what point did it sink in? I’m not going to be resigning with the Leafs.

ZH: When I went to Edmonton. Once I decided to go on the trip [to tour the Oilers’ facilities], I knew it was done.

SN: What do you do on days off?

ZH: During the year, you don’t really have much time to get out. One off-day, you’re pretty exhausted. It’s family time, going on walks around here, hanging out with Theo and my wife, Alannah. But in the summertime when we came out to visit, we got out to Lake Louise and Banff.

SN: Awesome. You’re not a skier, are you?

ZH: No. Not good for hockey.

SN: Have you been writing or working on any side projects outside of hockey?

ZH: Nothing yet. It’s been pretty a crazy year. But I’m always looking to continue it because it’s a big passion of mine.

SN: What do you think has been the Oilers’ issue lately? You were just dominating at the beginning, but you’ve hit a bit of a lull here.

ZH: Every team goes through lulls in the season. It was nice to get off to a strong start. It kind of bides you time to figure it out and get back at it. I think we’re starting to play better, and we’ve played better in these losses than some of the wins, I’d say. Just the nature of hockey. We gotta get through it.

SN: What do you miss most about Toronto?

ZH: Having your friends and family there all the time. It’s nice in some ways, and then in some ways you miss it. That’s kinda the positive and the negative.

SN: Do your parents come out to watch games out there?

ZH: Yeah, they do. We have a really strong support system and great family. They come out a bunch and enjoy it.

SN: Considering you’re on Team Canada’s long list, do you allow yourself to dream what that might be like to represent your country in Beijing?

ZH: Pretty crazy. There are so many great players that are vying for such few spots, so just to be in consideration is a huge honour. And if I was selected, it would be a massive honour. So it’s very, very cool and something I’m really appreciative for.

SN: Would you have any reservations about going?

ZH: No. If you have an opportunity like that, you go.

SN: Have you been talking to Connor about it?

ZH: Well, he’s on the team, so he’s excited. He wants to go. He’s eager.

SN: Has it provided you with any extra motivation this year?

ZH: I can control what I can control. For me, it’s all about the Oilers and trying to help this team win, and let the other stuff figure it out on its own. You can’t control any of that, so just go out there and play your game and have fun. That’s all I’m thinking about.


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