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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Game of his Life

Like many who were glued to the action between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place Friday while watching Zack Kassian make it his mission in life to dismantle the Sharks in a game the Oilers absolutely had to win, I got caught up in the moment. How could you not?

In the same city where not so long ago Kassian was public enemy No. 1 and Oilers’ fans hated his guts after he broke Sam Gagner’s jaw with a reckless high stick and further infuriated the faithful by mocking Gagner, fans chanted his name Friday – “Kass-ian-Kass-ian-Kass-ian.” It was as dramatic a turnaround from villain to hero as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few over the years.

Kassian not only scored the winning goal on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period of a must-have 2-0 Edmonton win in Game 2, he rumbled around the ice like a man possessed, finishing the night with a half-dozen hits, including a freight-train job on Logan Couture that had the crowd roaring.

Understandably, it’s Kassian’s balls-out performance that matters most to fans. The series with the Sharks is tied 1-1 heading back down to San Jose and Kassian was the driving and undeniable force in making it happen. The bigger picture, how Kassian has embraced sobriety for 18 months now and turned his life around since wearing the black hat as a visitor to Edmonton, is what has me happy for him. That’s what really matters, and it’s no game.

PLAYING FOR KEEPS

Apr 12, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian (44) carries the puck around San Jose Sharks defensemen Justin Braun (61) during the third period in game one of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Kassian’s off-ice issues have been well-documented through stops with the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted him 13th overall in 2009, the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens. He wasn’t just a good-time guy. Kassian was, and is, an alcoholic. Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli provided Kassian one more chance, likely his last, when he acquired him from the Habs for Ben Scrivens fresh out of a substance abuse program.

“Oct. 5, 2015. It’s been 17 months,” Kassian said, talking about his sobriety, in a conversation with Mark Spector of Sportsnet back in February. “When you’re sober you have sobriety birthdays. My actual birthday (Jan. 24, ’91) doesn’t mean so much now.”

“I came here — last chance,” Kassian said. “I just wanted to earn the respect of my teammates. We have a great team in here and I’m just a small piece of the puzzle. I came here with an open mind. That I would do whatever I had to do, to help the team.”

Kassian told Jason Gregor and I much the same thing during an interview on Gregor’s show on TSN 1260 last season. Actions, not words, would tell the tale. They always do. So far, Kassian has been flying straight one day at a time. That – the real life stuff, the bigger picture off the ice that plays directly into the inspired performance we saw from Kassian on Friday — is to be applauded. It’s a commitment everybody can get behind.

The reality, as many of us are all-too aware, is it’s a day-to-day commitment not everybody can see through. The bottle, addiction of any kind for that matter, has ruined marriages and careers and split up so many families. It has taken too many lives. It strikes very close to home for me, and likely for many of you, too. It seems we all know someone who made it and someone who didn’t.

REAL LIFE

Apr 14, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian (44) celebrates a second period short-handed goal against the San Jose Sharks in game two of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

My adopted father was an alcoholic. When he was sober, he was a gentle, hard-working family man. When he drank, he was an angry, raging bully who terrorized my mom and his children. I had no idea, then, why. My dad ran out of chances before I was three years old. One night, after my dad threw me across the kitchen with so much force I broke through a cupboard door and sent pots and pans flying, my mom packed my brother and I and a couple of suitcases into the car and drove into the night. She never went back. The bottle cost my dad his family.

I saw my dad just one time after that. I was 14 and waiting for a bus connection in New Westminster. He was leaning in a doorway. He was drunk, incoherent and dirty. He never saw me. I remember wanting to confront him and ask why he’d hurt us, why he’d done the things he’d done. In the moment, I never found the courage. Months later, we got word he’d fallen down some stairs and hit his head. He died from a bleed on the brain. The bottle cost my dad his life.

There are too many stories like that. Thankfully, there are many with happier endings. As much as I got caught up in what Kassian showed us out on the ice Friday, the real story for me is knowing his ongoing commitment to sobriety is what made it possible. That’s what grabs me by the heart. That’s what won’t let go. Win or lose, that’s why I find myself pulling for Zack Kassian.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

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