April 28 2014 08:34PM
Luke Gazdic was drafted 172nd overall by the Dallas Stars in 2007. He scored 20 goals his final year in junior, and the next season he had 21 fights as an AHL rookie. Gazdic slugged it out in the minors for four seasons with the Texas stars, playing 269 games (regular season and playoffs) scoring 27 goals, 55 points and he picked up 62 scraps.
He was claimed on waivers by the Oilers on September 29th, and then fulfilled his childhood dream of playing in his first NHL game two days later. I had a lengthy conversation with Gazdic about his rookie season, Zack Kassian, shoulder surgery and how he will try to improve as a player.
This was my first long one-on-one interview with Gazdic, and I was impressed by how honest and open he was about his role on the team, his first NHL season, and how easy he was to converse with.
Gregor: You just had shoulder surgery how did that go?
Gazdic: I did, it was good. It was fairly successful operation I think. It was a pretty big surgery but recovery is going good and I’m hanging in there, a little bit at a time getting a little better.
Gregor: What day did you actually have surgery?
Gazdic: I had it on April 2nd.
Gregor: So, three weeks later and you’re out of your sling. It’s amazing how quickly it happens now.
Gazdic: Yeah it really is. I saw a really good surgeon in Cleveland that did a couple of guy’s surgeries. He worked on Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and I’m out of my sling and I have my stitches out. My spirits are better now, the first week was a little rough but it’s incredible the strides I’ve made in the last couple of weeks.
Gregor: Which Oiler trainer do you work with as far as rehab? Who sets your program?
Gazdic: Mostly Chris Davie and I have been working but head trainer T.D. Forss is also working with me and we do some preliminary physio right now. The first little bit was just making sure that there were no infections or anything, but right now I’m starting to move a little bit, starting to try to get some range of motion back and a little bit of soft tissue stuff, but nothing too crazy for the first month or so.
Gregor: What’s your timeline on when you should be back 100% healthy?
Gazdic: The goal is training camp. It’s a six month recovery and six months put me at probably the start of the season. So, I think for a normal guy it’s usually 4-6 months but for the role I play, I’ve said this before it’s probably towards the 6 months because of all of…
Gregor: Because when you are throwing a bomb of a punch you need your shoulder to be intact.
Gazdic: Yeah, nothing against a guy like Nuge, but I think that we play very different roles in a hockey game, (laughs) and I think that for all of the tugging and the pulling and stuff like that, I would try to err on the side of caution. So I think that around training camp would be the goal for me for sure.
Gregor: Did you talk to Hall and Nugent-Hopkins on how this surgery impacts your off-season training?
Gazdic: I spoke to them a little before. One of the things Hallsy was most disappointed about [laughs] was there was no golf game. It definitely hinders your training. It’s just kind of a gradual process. I mean, at two months you can kind of start skating again, but you’ve got no stick, and then you can start using a puck and then you’re doing a lot more leg stuff than upper body stuff. It’s just kind of a process. You kind of get these checkpoints where at certain weeks you’re allowed to do a little more and it’s just a little bit more wiggle room every day.
Gregor: Every fighter that I’ve ever talked to wants to be more than a fighter. Early on in the year you would get the puck and just put it off of the glass and out. As the season went along did you get more confidence handling the puck and do you feel that you need to work on that element of your game?
Gazdic: Yeah, I think so for sure. In the earlier half of the year I was so nervous every game, not just on the fighting aspect, but because you are playing, you’re playing in front of big crowds every night, and you’re playing against guys you’ve been watching on TV for years and it was almost a little bit of star struck for me. I think that as the year went on I started gaining a little more confidence and with that came ice time and Dallas [Eakins] began to use me a little more and yeah, I just got a little more confident handling the puck and I’m going to try to bring that over into next year.
***I think we forget how big of a deal it is to play in the NHL. Guys do get nervous, especially players who are just breaking in. The mental aspect of the game is often what separates line3rd and 4th players who play 30 games or 300. You need to be able to contain your nerves, and then you have to improve and find consistency. Gazdic will need to keep improving his game if he wants to stay in the league. He should look at a player like Shawn Thornton. It took him many years before he became a regular, but now he is a solid 4th liner on a great team.**
Gregor: Players who play limited minutes, if you make one mistake and you could be stapled to the bench for a lot longer than guys who handle the puck way more. That nervousness you talked about, I’m sure your coaches and everyone tells you to calm down, but it’s not that easy. How did you eventually calm down?
Gazdic: It was completely mental for me. It’s about staying, as Ryan Smyth liked to use the word, engaged for me. It’s just about staying engaged for the whole 60 minutes because you can literally go bouts of special teams and you might be sitting on the bench for 10 or 15 minutes on the clock in a period. Then you go back out and you’re expected to play that energy role for your teammates and it was definitely a bit of a grind for me. At the same time, it’s something that I’ve had to deal with ever since I started playing pro. It’s not like I’ve been a guy that’s been a big minute guy. It’s something that I’ve worked myself into.
Gregor: Because you won’t be able to do much upper body stuff as you mentioned due to your shoulder surgery, how will you work on your puck handling skills this off-season? What are some of the things you want to do to improve as a player?
Gazdic: Yeah, puck handling is definitely one of them. I think about a couple of months into the surgery, I will be able to handle a puck again. I got some people back home in Toronto that I work with and that’s something that I really want to work on is puck protection and puck skills and definitely my skating as well. I think skating almost first and foremost because this is a game these days where you have to be able to keep up with the pace, especially for a guy in my role, especially when you only play a certain amount of limited minutes. You‘ve got to be able to skate and you’ve got to be able to handle the puck and as long as I can prove to be a reliable player out there that Dallas can trust to put me out in any situation then I think I will play a bit more.
Gregor: I got a sense from your teammates, that they love having a guy like you around, especially how you handled the fisticuffs. Do you notice the more success you had fighting the happier your teammates were e to have you around? Not saying they weren’t at the start but…
Gazdic: Yeah, no, I think so for sure. It was a kind of a weird position for me because I didn’t come up through the system. I wasn’t an Oilers draft pick, I didn’t get signed by the Oilers. With Dallas (Stars) I grew up with those guys since I was drafted. I came up through the system, through the minors and here they just picked me up and I was automatically in the NHL for a month, that’s kind of like the waiver rule, so it’s kind of like I just stepped in here.
I really wanted to earn the respect of the guys right away. I fought a lot in the early going to try to do that, to try to prove to them that I was here for them, and only for them. I tried to give a little more room for some of the skilled players and to make sure that when people were coming in to play us that they weren’t going to be pushing around some of the younger guys.
It’s an extremely gratifying position for me, just because of the admiration that you get from your teammates. I’m not going to be a guy that’s going to be on the score sheet every night but the admiration you get from your guys after you have a fight or something like that is great for me.
Gregor: I don’t expect you to tell me everything you said, but talk about the conversations with Zack Kassian. It looked like he was mocking Sam Gagner. How frustrating was that?
Gazdic: It is for sure. It’s one thing
that…I don’t want to say regret that it never happened, but there’s not too
much that you can do in this day and age, with this game, with a guy who
doesn’t want to be a part of that, who that doesn’t want to fight. A perfect example was Shawn Thornton with
Bruce Orpik. He goes and takes him from behind, takes him out and there you go,
he’s looking at a 20-game suspension.
People were saying you should have just thrown your gloves off and you should have done this but at a certain point there’s got to be some accountability from the other side right? He’s a tough kid and he can handle himself and I was just questioning him multiple times on why there was no accountability from his side and it was very frustrating. I didn’t like some of the gestures he had made. I wasn’t even on the team yet, but I didn’t really like the injury on Sam to start. But at a certain point, like I say, there has to be some accountability on both sides, but there wasn’t from the Vancouver end.
Gregor: In a situation like that, are you a real vocal guy? Are you out there saying, ‘hey Kassian if you don’t do something then I’m going to make you fight me by hammering a Sedin.’
Gazdic: Yeah, I try to be. I really do. I try to intimidate because that’s a part of the role that I play but like I say, at a certain point, I just can’t be a goon, I can’t go out there and take a run at one of their top guys. I mean I could, but I’d likely get suspended… I mean it’s a tough situation; it really is because you don’t want to cross that line and you don’t want to end up in the stands for 20 games like Shawn Thorton was.
Gregor: I’m guessing that a lot of that comes from your own coach willing to give you a green light to say, ‘if you need to take an extra roughing penalty here, we’re okay with that.’
Gazdic: Yeah that’s what I’m saying too. I mean at that point, I could be wrong here, but at that point we were still trying to win hockey games, we were still trying to pick up points. And for me, if I got out there and I take an extra 2 on a guy when I’m playing 5 or 6 minutes a night, that’s not a good thing for me. Especially when I make the team go down and we have to kill a penalty because I take a stupid minor. That’s just something that I don’t take pride in.
I take pride in not taking a lot of minors at all. I think I maybe had 120 penalty minutes this year and I bet you I took 10 minors or something like that. So, it’s just something that I don’t want to have to put our team down an extra two when I don’t have to.
FIRST NHL GAME...
Gregor: You look back on how you become an Oiler. Steve MacIntyre takes a run at you in a pre-season game, misses, injures himself and then essentially you take his job. It’s kind of strange how things unfolded for you this year isn’t it?
Gazdic: It really is. It was an extremely ironic situation. I kind of had my eye on Mac a little bit. That was my last exhibition game for Dallas and I had thought that I had a pretty decent chance at making that team. I had had a really good camp and I kind of wanted to end my mark there. I tried to engage Mac a little bit and he goes to hit me and he hurts his knee. Then I’m reading on TSN the next day that they need someone to replace him and probably 12 hours after that I’m on a plane to Edmonton. And then 12 hours after that I’m playing in my first NHL game.
Gregor: And then you score.
Gazdic: I know. Two minutes into the game I score my first NHL goal on my first shot, first shift, like it was just crazy.
Gregor: I know guys talk about fights and when you win a fight decisively that’s good but that goal trumps everything, no?
Gazdic: Yeah, I don’t know how long my career is going to be, but I’m going to assume that when my career is done that is still going to be the highlight of my career. It was just, it was crazy. It was Hockey Night in Canada, and you hear all of those kids say it was on Hockey Night in Canada, but it truly was a big deal for me.
It was opening night, it was my first NHL game, I probably had 100 people back home watching that I knew of. A ton of people watching that didn’t even know I was playing, just had the game on. It was the first game of the year and Willy [Will Acton] won a draw back and I literally just threw a backhand on net and the thing just literally bounces in and it’s crazy how the hockey Gods work. Four years in the minors with Dallas I didn’t’ get one NHL game, not a shift, not one call up and then to score like that…It’s just crazy how the world turns sometimes.
Gregor: Were your parents in Edmonton for the game?
Gazdic: My dad was out of town on business from Toronto, he couldn’t get here, but I flew my mom out from Toronto and my older brother lives in Calgary, so he drove up and I had my mom and my brother there.
Gregor: Your father must have just been wild that he wasn’t there.
Gazdic: Yeah, he was. I can’t imagine his excitement when he was watching. I bet you, he was probably crying, I’m not going to lie. My mom definitely was, but it was just a special moment for me and my family for how hard [I’ve worked] to get there.
Gregor: It seems fathers normally can handle the role you play it a little better, but some moms are like ‘I can’t even watch it.’ How do you parents handle it?
Gazdic: You know my dad has always been good about it. He was a former hockey player and he understands. He understands the role and I think that he knows now that I can handle myself. I think he almost has come to like it (laughs). He enjoys it. He’ll always ask me and be like ‘oh who is this guy and who is that guy,’ but my mom had a really tough with it when I first started doing it in junior.
I had a really bad knockout in junior and I think ever since then she was a little sceptical of it, but the same with her, she’s really turned a corner. She used to be the mom that when I first started fighting, she would walk away and she would say to my father ‘tell me when the fight is over,’ and she would go for a walk. But now she knows that I can handle myself and I can protect myself and she, I don’t necessarily want to say that she likes it, but how she is confident in my abilities.
A TOUGH JOB
Gregor: When you got knocked out in junior, who were you fighting?
Gazdic: I was fighting some guy; Steve Miller, I think that he had two fights that whole year. I was playing the Sudbury Wolves and I caught a punch on the chin. It was just a nothing thing and I got knocked out and that was my only real knock out of my career. Yeah, I think that was kind of a turning point for me, I didn’t play for a while after that.
Gregor: How hard was it to get into your next scrap after that?
Gazdic: [Laughs] actually to be honest, I think that I was out for four weeks and my first game back, my first game was a Saturday night, I think in Erie, and I fought Chris Stewart. He was playing for the Kingston Frontenacs at the time and he was a tough, tough man.
Gregor: He is huge.
Gazdic: And he is a big leftie. He was probably one of the toughest guys in the league at the time, him and Jared Boll and Tom Steel were all in the league at the time and I fought Stewart my first game back. We had a great, great fight, one of the better fights of my junior career so I guess that answers that question. I got back on the horse pretty quickly.
Gregor: When you say we had a great fight, usually that means you’re giving some, but you’re also taking some. That is a unique way to look at it. A great fight usually means you landed some shots, but had to eat some as well.
Gazdic: Yeah exactly, it’s just weird. We were up two or three nothing, Kingston had a good squad. He came up and he asked me, I think he was 20 and I was 18 or I was 17 and he was 19 and he asked me to go. I knew that he was a leftie and started out with his right and we just started throwing and halfway through the fight I was like ‘holy crap, what is going on here’ I was taking one and then I was hitting him with one and then the crowd was going wild and it was just a great fight. The adrenaline was pumping.
I will have the rest of the interview later this week. Gazdic talks about Don Cherry, visors, the playoffs, playing two sports when he was in junior and more.
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