The Oilers acquired Zack Kassian, the 13th overall pick in 2009, from the Montreal Canadiens for Ben Scrivens on December 28th. Kassian, who spent a few months in rehab after a car accident on October 4th, reported to the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield in hopes of re-starting in NHL career.
The Oilers are his fourth organization in six and a half seasons, and needless to stay this could be his final chance to become a regular in the NHL. Kassian has played 198 games and tallied 35-31-66 and 307 penalty minutes in the past four seasons. He has the size, speed and skill to play in the NHL, but can he find the consistency necessary to stay?
Kassian was on my radio show yesterday. He sounded excited and grateful for the opportunity to resume his hockey career. Both Robin Brownlee and I found him very honest and sincere, and based on the reaction from fans who were listening, many are hoping he has his life in order and can return to the NHL.
Here is our conversation.
Jason Gregor: Let’s start with what is most important: where are you at health wise and mentally coming out of rehab?
Zack Kassian: I feel great. My minds at peace, I’ve obviously had a lot of time to think about a lot of things. I was really excited to get back and be given the opportunity to play again, especially with the Edmonton Oilers organization. It’s a great team, very young and very promising. I’m just excited to be back playing and hanging around with the guys.
Robin Brownlee: I’ve seen a couple of interviews of you. Tto me you sound different, and you even look a little bit different. I’m just looking at this from arm’s length, but you’re clearly looking to start down a new path and if you’re faking it, you’re awfully convincing because you sound and look like a new guy right now.
Kassian: Better looking I guess right, hopefully? [Laughs] No I do, I feel a lot better honestly. Three months away from the game, working on yourself really does a lot if you want to put in the work and I can honestly say that I put in a lot of work, and I’m just really excited to be back with the guys. I consider myself really lucky and I really want to run with this chance.
Gregor: We’ve seen a lot of pro athletes and many normal people at times go down the wrong path for whatever reason with addiction. You’ve had three months of clarity to get back on track, when you look back on it, where do you think you started to go down the wrong path?
Kassian: That’s tough and I don’t like to get into those types of questions but I can honestly tell you if I would have guessed five years ago that I would have ended up down this road I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But I really just have to accept what I’ve gone through and I think I became a better person from it. I think I have a lot of knowledge of the addiction side and I’m really looking forward to getting back to playing and being a leader. I’ve obviously been through some different stuff, some stuff that ordinary people might not get to witness and I just want to bring my knowledge and help people out and be a leader in that regard.
Gregor: How better prepared are you to deal with the pressure and challenges of being a pro athlete now compared to before you went through this?
Kassian: Oh a lot better. I think in order to be good on the ice, you have to have your off-ice together. Obviously that’s been an issue for quite a bit of time and to finally have that clarity and having everything taken care of off of the ice, I’m obviously not fixed or cured, but just to feel good about myself and wake up every day knowing that today is a new day and I’m excited that I get a chance to hopefully one day play in the NHL again. I’m totally happy with that and I have a lot of gratitude.
Brownlee: This is now your fourth NHL organization. I guess just from a selfish side of view, you’ve got to decide whether the change is the real you. You don’t just say ‘oh it’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it anymore,’ but you don’t want to push it too much when you’re talking about your fourth club at twenty-four do you?
Kassian: No, you don’t. This is my last chance. I know that. Obviously people are assuming that but I know that this is my last chance obviously when I went down through waivers and what not. Peter [Chiarelli] took a chance on me and it’s up to me to show him that it’s the right chance and that’s where I stand with that right now. I really want to take this opportunity and run with it. Obviously you want some longevity with one team and bouncing around from team to team, this is not a fun career and it’s tough to move city to city and meet new guys, but I’m really just looking forward to hopefully getting the call-up. First I have to play well down here and do the right things to get the call-up, but if I do, I’m going to run with it.
Brownlee: What’s your point of contact been with the Oilers? Has Pete Chiarelli or anybody else in the front office discussed expectations?
Kassian: No, to be honest I’ve talked to Peter briefly. Obviously through Christmas break and when they picked me up, but other than that I was told to report to Bakersfield and get to work. That was great for me to hear. He didn’t say I was getting called up any time or set a date, which I wasn’t looking for that. I’m like anyone else – I want to earn my call-up, I want to feel good about myself and that I worked hard. I don’t want to cut any corners, so that’s where we stand with that and I haven’t had a conversation since.
Gregor: You’ve played two games in Bakersfield and you scored a goal already. Can you describe how it felt for you to get back on the ice after being away for so long?
Kassian: Yeah, it was a great feeling, just coming into a locker room again with the comradery with the guys, just being around the guys. Once that gets taken from you, you don’t know if you’re ever going to get it again especially at the AHL or NHL level. It’s scary and just going out for my first practice was awesome. Just waking up every day and going into the rink, I couldn’t be a happier person and I’m just looking forward to keep moving forward here.
Gregor: I know it’s only been two games and a very short window, but you said you have more clarity in your life now. Did you notice a difference at all in how it translated to you on the ice?
Kassian: Obviously the timing and the battle and the compete levels and just being in the game situations is something that you have to play to get that, and obviously that’s going to come with the more games that I play. But condition-wise I felt pretty well. I didn’t have any [Wayne] Gretzky vision – I was hoping to have some Gretzky vision when I came back but that didn’t happen. But to be honest, I feel better on the ice just because I know that my off-ice stuff is not taken care of but it’s cleaned up. When you don’t have all of that weight on your shoulders from the outside distractions it’s a lot easier to play the game.
Gregor: Some players who play the game the way you do have stated they had a lot of anger off of the ice and that led to some of them towards substance abuse, but when they got clarity it was hard to bring that nasty side back onto the ice. Mark Letestu told me, ‘Kassian gets other teams off of their game’, and the Oilers don’t have a guy like you. Do you feel you will be able to still possess that on-ice persona?
Kassian: If anything I want to do more of that [laughs]. I want to be more in your face, I want to be harder to play against. That stuff I’m looking, especially with an organization like Edmonton, I want to bring on a nightly basis. I think I could really help in that regard. My off-ice issues will never determine really what kind of player I am on the ice. If anything with the clarity came knowing what I have to do, and what I want to do to be successful, and I need to be doing that on a night-to-night basis. And if I’m not scoring I need to pick up the physical part of my game and do all of those things as well.
Brownlee: Zack, hockey being hockey, there is probably a lot of Oilers fans who hated your guts just eighteen months ago who were very happy to hear that from you. When you look at this roster, you know these young players, you’ve played against almost all of them, expect a guy like Connor McDavid. This is a skilled, young and in some positions undersized roster. If you were looking for an opportunity, this is right in your wheelhouse isn’t it?
Kassian: Yeah, it is. As a big physical player I think I couldn’t have ended up in a better spot. It’s weird how all of that stuff works out but like I said, I’m worried about just getting my game in A form down here but I have a sparkle in my eye knowing the opportunities that I have here if I play the right way and I’m looking forward to really molding my game down here, getting to feel really good, getting my skating right. From there I’m just taking it a day at a time.
Gregor: What has head coach Gerry Fleming talked to you about your game thus far?
Kassian: Well he just said it was a good two games. He thought I played better in the first than in the second and it was just little habits that I need to cut out, the summer hockey, the turning away from the puck, the stopping and starting. Obviously I got the goal, but I don’t think that I played the right way in the second game and I’m going to watch tape and playing correctly is going to come back to me, especially with more games I play. Not by any means am I pleased by the first two games, I’m going to keep building on that.
Brownlee: How is your weight and your conditioning this early in the stint? Are you close to where you want to be weight-wise?
Kassian: Yes, I’m right where I want to be weight-wise. Obviously the game situation stuff takes time and you really only can do that playing games, but physically I feel really well out there. I’m recovering, it’s just a matter of playing games and getting into those little battles, the timing and things like that.
Gregor: Zack, who was your biggest supporter through the rehab?
Kassian: Family. Family has always been there, but I would get a lot of texts from people that I didn’t think that I would get texts from, so that was really nice. But really it was my family and close friends, people that will support me no matter what happens which was great. I really enjoyed seeing the people who texted me through the rough times, especially with the car accident and the news about me going back into treatment. I was really surprised. It made me feel good that people have my back.
Gregor: We are getting many texts from fans writing ‘loving the interview’, ‘wishing you all of the best’, ‘hope you play in Edmonton’. I know you chuckled earlier because you were public enemy number one from the Sam Gagner incident a few years ago, but like most guy who play on the edge, the minute you’re on that fan bases’ team, they love you. So is it safe to say that the on ice jerk factor of Zach Kassian will be as high as ever when you make it back to the NHL?
Kassian: I don’t know. I don’t like to be considered a jerk. I like to play the game hard and sometimes you cross that line but…
Gregor: I meant that as a positive, the Oilers don’t have that guy. They need a guy who other teams think that he’s a jerk to play against, but if he’s on their team they love him.
Kassian: Yeah, that’s who I want to be. You don’t want to play for a team and have your own team or fans hate you [laughs]. But that’s up to me. I need to win over the fans and that’s something I’m looking forward to doing. I like to play with an edge and I want to bring more of that than I ever have before, and I want to do it on a consistent basis. So that’s something that I know if I play the right way, that the fans of Edmonton will like the way that I play.
Gregor: Most importantly, congratulations on going through rehab and successfully coming out of it and feeling better about yourself. All the best in your journey back to the National Hockey League.
Kassian: Thanks for having me on guys. I hope to see you soon.
The Oilers need a player like Kassian. A big, mean complementary winger who has enough skill to play alongside the smaller, skilled forwards of the Oilers. The question will be can he do it consistently and can he be more of an asset than a hindrance.
He knows what is in front of him and it will ultimately be up to him if he succeeds. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs and I believe in giving people a second chance. First and foremost, I hope he has his addictions under control, and if he manages to make it back to the NHL then that is a wonderful bonus for him.
I will be following his progress in Bakersfield, and I expect he will get an opportunity with the Oilers before the end of the season.
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