I first met Ales Hemsky minutes after the Edmonton Oilers drafted him 13th overall in 2001. I can’t say I’ve ever heard him sound more positive than he did in a conversation we had today.
Hemsky, 27, back in town from the Czech Republic just a couple days, took a twirl on the ice at Millennium Place before all the youngsters in town for a prospects camp got busy, then chewed the fat with a handful of reporters as the kids did their thing.
Hemsky’s surgically repaired shoulder is fine and should be at or near 100 per cent by the time he reports for training camp. This, obviously, is a good thing for the Oilers.
What really grabbed me, though, wasn’t Hemsky’s physical health, but his emotional outlook. Anybody who has been paying attention knows that’s something that hasn’t always been a shining ray of light during some dark days in five straight years out of the playoffs.
As Hemsky enters his prime surrounded by so much promising but largely unproven young talent, he’s as genuinely excited about the upcoming season as I’ve ever seen him.
THE SMYTH FACTOR
While Hemsky is unquestionably stoked about the return of old linemate Ryan Smyth, the collection of kids the Oilers have gathered during these lean five years since the 2006 Stanley Cup final also has him pumped.
"We had lots of young guys coming in last year," Hemsky said. "It’s the same here this year.
"The first overall pick and another couple guys, so the depth of the young guys is huge. I don’t think we ever had so many guys like that, talented. Now, we have another five guys from free agency, so the depth is pretty good. A lot of players."
Just five weeks from his 28th birthday, Hemsky’s not old by any stretch, but he’s Father Time compared to the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi. Then again, he’s a pup compared to Smyth.
"He’s been around for a long time, so he’s got a lot of things to say to the young guys," Hemsky said. "They can learn from him.
"I played with him for five years, six years. He gave me a lot. He was nice to me. He can build your confidence. His work ethic is great. The guys can just learn from that.
"On the ice, he’s a leader. Even if he doesn’t talk, you can just see it on the ice. He works every shift. He’s in every battle. He cares about the team."
There’s been plenty of speculation about Hemsky in recent years. Is he happy in Edmonton? Does he want to sign another deal or will he bolt for unrestricted free agency when his contract is up at the conclusion of this season? Should the Oilers trade him?
I’ve asked those questions and written those storylines more than once since 2006, with good reason. More often than not, Hemsky sounded like a profoundly unhappy young man during past conversations.
That, of course, is to be expected, given the dismal performance of the team since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. That began to change last season with the infusion of Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi. It continues now.
"You look at the team and how the team can look long-term," Hemsky said when asked about his future here.
"The players they’ve signed are great players who will fit really well. The toughness they got with (Ben) Eager and (Darcy) Hordichuk. The centre (Eric Belanger) for the face-offs. We get a little bigger with (Andy) Sutton. "I think it’s a good fit, what we need. It can only make you happy, you know, for
ANSWERS WILL COME
After back-to-back shoulder surgeries. what Hemsky needs now is to put in a full, healthy season, be it reunited on a line with Smyth or alongside all the fuzzy-cheeked talent.
If he does that, and if the Oilers begin the ascent to playoff contention fans are being sold as the basis of this rebuild, a lot of the questions that surround Hemsky should answer themselves.
Does he want to stay? If this team is on the rise and can have a chance to win something in two or three years, why wouldn’t he? Should the Oilers commit to a player who has been "fragile" in recent seasons? If Hemsky stays healthy, why not?
"We didn’t really talk about anything," Hemsky said when asked about contract talks between agent Jiri Crha and the Oilers. "I don’t worry about it right now. My focus right now is just to get back, get 100 per cent and get ready for the season."
And then . . .?
"It’s tough to lose," Hemsky said. "It’s been hard for the last five years. Last year was different. It’s never easy losing, to not make the playoffs. I never really judge anybody, why we didn’t make it before. It’s a new generation now.
"I want a chance to win. I think they made a lot of good additions to the team. We can even this year be good, like for playoffs. Of course, I want to go in the playoffs. That’s the only goal I have.
"Even this year. Hopefully, we can do it. If we have those young guys who were playing last year. They’ll be more confident, they’ll be a little bit older. We’ve got other young guys coming up . . . it’ll be fun."
"Fun" enough to stay?
"I never really like to change places," Hemsky said. "I’m really confident here, like I say. I’ve met a lot of great people here. I’ve got a lot of good friends here. I have a girlfriend from here.
"I can’t complain, you know? I don’t mind the city. Everybody is nice to me. I can’t complain."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.