Vancouver Canucks right wing Zack Kassian, right, celebrates his goal as Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown looks away during the first period of an NHL game in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013.
Photograph by: Chris Carlson, AP
LOS ANGELES – With shaggy hair and a gap-toothed grin, Zack Kassian may look old school but that's not where he went for classes last summer.
Like a lot of university age kids, Kassian figured he would squeeze in a few extra credits because you can never go wrong with an education. So he spent a couple of weeks at the University of the Sedins, then took some grad classes at the Nike U. He was conditioned by his own personal trainer, tutored by skills coach Glenn Carnegie and mentored by Stan Smyl.
It seems it takes an entire National Hockey League organization to raise a prospect. The 22-year-old Kassian is emerging from classes a quicker, leaner, more confident and mature Vancouver Canuck this season.
“We asked him to do a lot of things and he didn't complain,” Canuck general manager Mike Gillis explained Monday before his team faced the Los Angeles Kings. “He looked forward to the opportunity. It shows a sense of maturity and a determination to get himself ready for the next level. We thought it would be an opportunity for him to grow.”
Like Jack's beanstalk.
Kassian was arguably the Canucks' best forward through five games. Not only is he asserting himself physically, finishing checks and fighting twice on behalf of his team against the opposition's toughest player, but he is demonstrating poise and vision with the puck that did not seem to exist in his NHL game only last season.
He has done so well that Cody Hodgson's West Coast fan club has stopped bleating, however briefly, about the trade 11 months ago that brought Kassian from the Buffalo Sabres.
Even if Hodgson had loved the Canucks, the team wouldn't swap Kassian back for him now despite the key absence of injured second-line centre Ryan Kesler.
Hodgson didn't want to play behind Kesler and Henrik Sedin. Ironically, it's playing – and training – with Henrik and brother Daniel that has most helped Kassian's growth.
The Sedins asked him to train with them in June, and Kassian travelled back to Vancouver from his off-season home in Windsor, Ont., to see how two of the best players in the world do it.
“That came out of our wrap-up dinner last year,” Gillis explained. “I was talking to Henrik and he was telling me about what he thought of Zack's potential. Then Danny joined us. . . and they asked if it would be OK for them to invite Zack to train with them. It was better than OK; it was great. They both see tremendous potential in Zack and they want to do everything they can to help him. It's true leadership, unselfish and generous.”
“Both me and Danny just had a good feeling about him,” Henrik said. “He's been through some tough things in the past. But meeting him last year and seeing him and being around him, we started to like him as a guy and a player. I've never been traded, but talking to a lot of players who have been traded, it's tough. And in Zack's situation, where he gets traded for Cody, there's so much expectations and that's tough for him, too.”
The Sedins' commitment to their craft is famous. Even after their rise to world-class status several years ago, the Swedes still push one another each summer to get even better.
“I know in Sweden there are a lot of young players who work hard to get in the Elite League when they're 18 or 19, then they stop trying to get better and are happy where they are,” Henrik said. “I think that's a problem for a lot of young guys. The thing I'm most impressed with Zack is the way he wants to learn, wants to get better. He asks a lot of questions.”
“You hear things – how hard they work and what not and how dedicated they are away from the ice,” Kassian said. “To witness it first-hand, it was an eye-opener. You realize how hard they work to get that good on the ice. It's great for a young person like me to realize that early in my career.
“I changed my perspective about training. I got a new personal trainer back in my hometown of Windsor. I went to the Nike facility (near Portland) with a bunch of guys and I worked with Glen Carnegie. And when you put all those trainers together, their different strengths, it definitely helps.”
Nike runs a high-performance centre for its elite athletes.
Gillis said the Canucks have a sports science “relationship” with Nike, and were able to send five of their top prospects to Oregon for a summer camp. Kassian said there were NFL players there, as well as soccer players from Manchester United.
Canuck assistant coach Newell Brown, assistant general manager Lorne Henning, conditioning coach Roger Takahashi, Carnegie and Smyl, a senior adviser to Gillis, also visited Nike's campus. The Canuck prospects – Kassian, Chris Tanev, Jordan Schroeder, Kevin Connauton and Darren Archibald – were in Oregon for a week.
“It was an opportunity to look at how philosophies are changing with respect to training techniques and working with high-performance athletes,” Gillis said..
Kassian made a second summer trip to Vancouver to work one-on-one with Carnegie, and has been mentored extensively by Smyl.
Kassian had no idea what he didn't know.
“I did a lot of learning,” he said. “I definitely feel better on the ice but, saying that, we're only a few games into the season and there's still a lot of work to be done. It's a matter of getting better. Sometimes, you get used to something for so long. But change is good, and this was good for me.”
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