Midway through the first period, with the Vancouver Canucks on a power play, Zack Kassian sprints up the wing.
Crossing centre ice, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound forward takes a pass in stride and flies into the offensive zone along the right-side boards. He easily eludes Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild before deftly putting the puck into the slot, a spot to which teammate Kevin Bieksa darts. Bieksa snaps a one-timer for the first goal of the game Tuesday night.
It was a lead the Canucks would not relinquish, booking a sixth-consecutive win, making them the hottest team in the NHL.
When Kassian arrived in Vancouver at the end of last February, there were howls of discontent among fans. Cody Hodgson, already a proven scorer, was sent to Buffalo in exchange for the not-fully-formed Kassian. Jarred by the sudden trade, Kassian was further shell-shocked by the klieg lights of hockey-mad Vancouver, and produced just one goal and three points in 21 games. He watched the final match of the season in street clothes, as the Canucks went down to the Los Angeles Kings.
Ruing that ignominious end, Kassian redoubled his efforts to become the player people such as general manager Mike Gillis imagined: a vision whose acme sees something like another Cam Neely, the prototype power forward drafted by Vancouver in 1983.
Kassian has flourished in 2013. He leads Vancouver in goals (five) and has emerged as the physical force the Canucks wanted, especially with Ryan Kesler still injured. And he turned 22 three weeks ago.
The play on the ice is the result of a sweat-soaked summer, from work with the Sedin twins, who are fanatical about fitness, to a 10-day camp run by Nike at its headquarters in the Portland suburbs, attending with other Canucks prospects and young athletes from the NFL and the English Premiership.
The final complement to Kassian’s work – all in, dropping 15 or so pounds – came in the Vancouver suburbs in a mixed martial arts octagon. Several years ago, the Canucks dispatched some prospects for basic lessons, mostly for fitness, under the direction of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and long-time MMA coach Adam Ryan – but Gillis figured Kassian would benefit from more hands-on work.
There were some 15 hour-long sparring sessions through the summer.
“It was everything,” Kassian said. “It’s just the little things. Obviously, in the game, there’s going to be times you need to defend yourself, just little techniques and whatnot.”
Kassian isn’t in Vancouver as a fringe enforcer, but he has scrapped twice this year, the second time, in a losing effort, was more notable. Against San Jose Sharks veteran Ryane Clowe, Kassian was bested, but, early on in the fight, he was briefly down on his knees and sprung right back. It was an impressive display of agility and perseverance.
Kassian has worked to hone at-times unruly power. In the OHL, where he helped lead the Windsor Spitfires to the Memorial Cup title, he was suspended for 20 games for a check to the head of another player in early 2010, and that summer, at 19, was charged with assault after a late-night bar fight. (The charge was later dropped in exchange for community service.)
Ryan founded his first MMA gym six years ago, and opened his current location in 2010. Ahead of training Kassian, Ryan did his own research, lacing up skates and getting on ice to get a feel for how he would relay his experience.
In hockey, Ryan observed: “Most guys grab on, put their head down, and throw punches. That’s just rolling the dice. Of course, the crowd loves it. But you’ve got to be ready to defend that and fire back. If they go to grab, you deflect their grab, so they’re not grabbing where they want to, and you’re attacking.”
For Kassian, and Vancouver, goals are far more important than thuggery. But given Kassian can stay in the ring with the likes of Clowe, alongside his goal scoring, it bolsters his entire game.
“I’m just more confident,” Kassian said. “I feel confident.”
Obviously, I’ve been given an opportunity to be in a bit of an offensive role. Just all around, I feel more comfortable with everything.”