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Photo Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Kassian: A Story of Redemption

Alcoholism is brutal. I’ve seen many loving, intelligent and strong people succumb to the disease. My uncle Mike was extremely generous. He loved his daughters. He loved music and he was always helping people who were down on their luck. He was also an alcoholic. He tried to quit many times. He would remain sober for periods, but he was never able to completely shake it. His passing made me realize you can be strong and smart in many aspects of your life, but addiction is incredibly difficult to defeat.

Many people suffer from various addictions. The lucky ones are able to control their addiction while many fight it their entire life.

Zack Kassian went to rehab in October of 2015 and since then he’s remained sober. He played a career-high 79 games this past season and a few weeks ago he was rewarded with a three-year contract extension. Kassian chose to not let his addiction define him as a young man. He turned his life around and while doing so, he became a better hockey player.

Kassian was the 13th overall pick in 2009. He won a Memorial Cup with Windsor in 2010 and he turned pro in 2011/2012.  He was a great skater for a big man and he played abrasively. He also partied hard off of the ice. After an all-night party ended with him being a passenger in an early-morning car accident in Montreal in October, 2015, he entered a substance abuse program. Last year Kassian told me the accident was a blessing in disguise as he had to take a long look in the mirror at who he’d become.

A few months later, Kassian walked out of rehab and was determined to turn his life around. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli acquired him from Montreal for Ben Scrivens. Kassian was given a new opportunity and he vowed he’d make the most of it.

He did, and last month he signed a three-year extension with the Oilers.

Kassian joined me on TSN1260 to discuss his new contract, but we also talked about how he’s managed to change his lifestyle and remain sober.

Jason Gregor: During the past twenty months, getting used to living a different lifestyle, what was the most difficult step for you?

Zack Kassian: Well, I don’t think that it was difficult, but it wasn’t easy. It was more so me knowing what I had to do, and what I had to put my mind to in order to do it. Once I made my decision to get clean and to change my life around, I think that was the hardest point, to be honest. That was the hardest part and then from there, I just wanted to hit away at the nail and slowly get my life back. And with that came my career. It doesn’t happen without Peter Chiarelli, who gave me the opportunity. I told him that day I was going to prove to him he made a right decision and today we’re sitting here with a new contract. I still feel I need to keep proving myself. It doesn’t stop now that I have the new deal. I just need to keep working and proving people right.

Gregor: That’s fantastic. Mark Letestu told me ‘Kassian goes around the room before practice and chirps everyone in a fun way to get everyone going.’ And then after practice you’re the one on the receiving end from pretty much everyone. How rewarding has it been for you to not only be happy off of the ice, but to be looked upon now as one of the glue guys in a dressing room?

Kassian: Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed joking around and having fun. We’re playing in the NHL — it’s a pretty good life so I’ve always tried to remember that. But I think with my experiences off of the ice that just gives me even more excitement to come to the rink every day and have fun. We have a great group in Edmonton. It starts with our captain Connor (McDavid), but everyone gets along, everyone likes each other. We’re a really tight knit group. So with that comes a lot of chirping back and forth. Testy (Letestu) is accurate, I do start it off in the morning, but I really do take a lot of abuse at the end of the day (laughs).

Gregor: I sense your attitude is, ‘If I’m not getting chirped back, it’s not fun.’

Kassian: Yeah, I don’t mind it. I don’t mind it because then I get to go home and I get to brainstorm ideas so I can come and fire more at them the next morning (laughs).

Gregor: Which of your teammates are your best verbal sparring partners? Who keeps you on your toes?

Kassian: There are a lot of good ones. I can’t name just one, I feel like a lot of guys need to team up to get me.

Gregor: So they combine forces, because one-on-one they’re not strong enough?

Kassian: Exactly, but that’s OK. It’s all fun and games (laughs) and we enjoy it. It seems most guys can have a good chirp back, but rarely every day.

Gregor: The big change this past season was your role on the penalty kill. You’d never done that consistently in the National Hockey League before. When did Todd McLellan tell you you’d be on the PK, and was it easy to accept that it was going to be a new role for you moving forward?

Kassian: Todd mentioned it the first time that I met him. He kind of laid out where he saw me fitting in with the team and I was excited with that process. I never really killed a penalty before the NHL to be honest, before I played for Edmonton. I got thrown out there a little bit in Junior, but it was one of those things when they said they wanted to try me on the PK, I really focused in on it. I was asking a lot of questions, especially Letestu and (Matt) Hendricks and Jimmy (Jim Johnson). It was one of those things where I wanted to get better and I wanted to improve and I wanted to be the guy who was going over the boards to kill penalties regularly.

Throughout the year, I felt more comfortable, got more comfortable with it and now I want to keep growing. It is fun. I enjoy doing it and it keeps you in the game, keeps your legs in it, keeps your mind in it, and it’s a challenge to do. It’s a good opportunity with this team.

May 7, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian (44) celebrates a first period goal against the Anaheim Ducks in game six of the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Gregor: This year was a big step for the entire group. There were a lot of young players experiencing the postseason for the first time. Now you look at your team moving forward. So far there hasn’t been a lot of changes other than [Ryan] Strome for Jordan Eberle, and adding Jussi Jokinen, so what do you think your group has to do to take the next step?

Kassian: I think most importantly, and I think that everyone on our team understands it, is we can’t get complacent heading into the next season. Todd mentioned it in the exit meetings, but we already knew as players that this league, it doesn’t just come to you. We’re a good team this year but we can’t just expect things to come next year. Teams are going to have a game plan for us and I think that is the biggest challenge.

And I think that when we get back in September we’re going to be a really good team, we’re going to take that step. Everyone is excited to get the year underway, and we feel we have unfinished business. It’s important for us to move forward in the right direction, get into the playoffs. You [have] seen from your time covering the league, when you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. We have to be prepared and not get complacent heading into the year. It’s tough to get in, it’s a dog fight, but we feel like we have the team to get in. Especially the next little while with the team we have we can do some damage.

Gregor: Now that you’ve gotten to know Connor McDavid as a player and as a person, what’s impressed you most about what he does on and off the ice?

Kassian: Yeah, it’s amazing. Everyone always asks me ‘how is it, how is it, how is it?’ For me it’s what type a guy he is off of the ice. I just saw him last weekend and he’s coming off of three awards at the NHL and he’s so even keel. He was happy to see his buddies, happy to hang out. That’s just the type of guy he is. And on the ice, you guys see it day in and day out. I might have a bit of better seat than you (laughs) but he’s a great player and he’s going to be good for many years to come. There’s not many players who come to the league with his ability. So, I’m lucky. I feel lucky to be one of his teammates and to watch him first hand every day.

Gregor: Outside of your skating ability and penalty killing, you also have a physical side. Even though fighting is down, intimidation can still be a factor in the game. How important is it for you to maintain that aspect and how do you evolve and use it to your advantage moving forward?

Kassian: I need to continue to be physical. I think I can be even more physical. That’s where my game starts. If I’m skating and I’m being physical, then the opposition is second guessing themselves, I’m getting pucks, I’m intercepting pucks and I’m reacting to pucks. It’s one of those things where everything rolls off of my skating and my physicality. That’s where my scoring opportunities come. It is where I help my linemates. On a nightly basis I need to be physical and people need to know that I’m out there.

Gregor: I presume this year was the most disallowed goals you’ve had in one season. Have you had that many during the rest of your career?

Kassian: (Laughs) No, no I haven’t. It was a weird year in that regard. Yeah, it was frustrating at some points. Thankfully, I think we won all of the games, which was easier to handle. It’s never nice, it’s never fun when you’re getting goals turned back, but there is nothing really you can do about it. I was watching the playoffs and on the bigger stage there was some goals disallowed. Sometimes it happens and there is nothing you can do. You’ve just got to keep working. I feel I can score at least ten goals each year. I feel like I can do that the next couple of years.

Gregor: You mentioned you still feel you have a lot to prove. Obviously you’re not going to rest on your laurels getting a three-year contract. What elements of your game specifically are you go to work on this summer?

Kassian: I think speed is such a big part of the game. Fitness and speed to keep up, especially in the role I play. If I want to be physical and get in on the forecheck and being on the PK, I need to really focus on quickness and speed and I really want to keep improving on the PK. I feel like I’ve grasped the concept, and I just want to keep growing in that regard. I want to become a top one or two PK guy on my team. We have a lot of good penalty killers to learn from. That’s the brick I want to start with, and as the season progresses we’ll see if I can do more.

Gregor: You’ve mentioned riding your Harley is one of your favourite hobbies. How many miles do you log on the bike, and do you have any special trips planned?

Kassian: No trips planned yet, and for mileage wise it depends where I am. I like to get a lot of good use. I actually just finished yesterday with the Bob Probert charity ride. There were 1400 bikes here, it was pretty cool. We rode to the county, had a bunch of stops for some food and stuff like that. I like doing those kinds of things, but I also like you mentioned, just get on it and ride it. I can’t really pinpoint an exact for mileage but I like to ride it a lot, that’s for sure.

Gregor: You’ve been very open and proud of the fact you’ve been able to overcome your addiction. You aren’t embarrassed by your journey. How have you been able to stay sober for the last twenty-one months, while still playing hockey? You still hang out with your teammates, they tell me you’re not a recluse who doesn’t hang out or anything. So how have you been able to stay sober, while being in the same job, lifestyle and environment as before, when many people can’t?

Kassian: Everyone is different. I think just making the decision that I didn’t want my life to be the way that it was got me on track. I don’t want to say it’s that easy because other people are deeper into the addiction maybe than I was. For me I made a promise to my family, to the Edmonton organization and, most importantly, to myself, that I wasn’t going to drink again, and as soon as I made that decision I feel like that’s when everything started climbing back upwards.

I feel like if your mindset is you’re not going to drink again, you’re not going to drink again. You make a tough decision and stick with it. I think that’s where I’m at now with it. Obviously, I have a lot to lose, which helps with the team we have in Edmonton. It’s one of those things where life is good right now and obviously you’re going to have good days and bad days but there’s a lot of people out there who are having a lot tougher time than I am, and that’s kind of what grounds me when I do have those tough days.

Gregor: Congratulations on a new contract and more importantly on being a man of your word to your family, the Oilers and yourself. You said you would do everything to make them feel right about their decision, and you have, and you inspire a lot of people who are battling with their own demons, whatever they are.

Kassian: Thank you. Thanks for having me Gregor, take care.

WRAP UP

Kassian has become a fan favourite in Edmonton, which is surprising consider for many years he was one of the most hated players due to his slash to the face of Sam Gagner. I believe fans relate to Kassian because he has shown his vulnerability. He has spoken openly about his addiction, and he has turned his life around. Most people want to see others succeed. It is inspiring to see someone overcome adversity, and it helps that Kassian always seems to be smiling. Of course the fact he’s become a very good player helps. He skates well, he’s a solid penalty killer and he enjoys sticking up for his teammates. Fans like it. If you are struggling with addiction, I hope Kassian’s words inspire you to try and make a change. You are stronger than you think. You can take the first step.

Kassian has become very popular within the organization and fanbase, and much of that is because of his honesty and transparency. Having seen some friends and family members struggle with addiction, it is wonderful to see a young man fight back against his addiction and turn his life around.

I look forward to seeing how the next chapters of his life and career unfold.

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  • foureyedmike

    He’s my favorite current Oiler.

    I appreciate the honesty, but also the effort and enthusiasm he shows. The season before this one, when the team was struggling, you could see he was happy to be out there and working hard.

    While I appreciate his candor, I feel bad for him that he has to keep answering for his addictions. Hopefully he’s OK with talking about it; it’s a pretty personal thing.

  • Homer

    Wow great interview! Can’t get enough of watching Zack play and knowing what he’s gone through is very inspiring. Keep up the good work Zack we’re all rooting for you!!!

  • PimpTaco

    It’s nice to finally see the team smiling and enjoying hockey. The Eakins year and a half, good grief, I have never seen a team who looked so unlike a team that it was getting a bit embarrassing as a fan. There was a lot of divide on the ice and between coaching and the players. I think we often forget that even though these are people getting paid a lot of money to do what they do, they also have to enjoy going to work and playing hard for us fans. They are after all human. I think the playoff run in the city opened up a lot of the player’s eyes to understand what it means to be an Oiler and have the entire city rooting for you.

    It must be a great feeling.

    Kassian is going to be a fan favourite as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing. Put himself and his addiction first, then everything after that is secondary. The chips will fall where they fall. Atta boy Zack.

  • Nanook

    I hated him a couple years ago. So odd to be saying hes one of my favorite players now. Good on him to clean up and make himself better. Good story, great person.

  • OriginalPouzar

    As an addict in recovery myself (5 years on August 17) I am incredibly proud of Zack. I was a bit worried at first given the short term of the NHL substance abuse programs – I spend 5.5 months in residential rehab – but, to this point, all has turned out for the best. Zack really seems to have bought in to the program and he realizes that, the promises to his family and the organization are great and important, he needs to do this for himself.

    Go Zack!

    Go Oilers!

  • Glencontrolurstik

    Often teams take chances with “project” players that other teams can’t work with…
    It’s fantastic when things work out on both sides.
    Kassian will always be remembered as a Great Oiler I hope.
    That’s up to him & the team. I’m glad to be a fan of “an above board” team that seems to have good morals & beleive in role models. Kudos to all…

  • SeethingRed

    Hate, hate, hate, the Oilers…but great story and good for him…I’ll cheer for him when he isn’t playing the Flames…such a destructive disease.

  • Deezy

    Great to see such positivity from Gregor, in relation to Kassian and his prior off ice issues. Huge contrast to Brownlee’s faithless article right after Chia acquired him for Scrivens.