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Vancouver Province article (Kassian's Canadian crunch)

December 23 2010 at 7:22 AM
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N. W. Bruin  (Login NW_Bruin_GM)

Kassian's Canadian crunch

Big forward has soft hands, controlled aggression

Postmedia News

December 23, 2010

If they were going to succeed in defending their Memorial Cup title, general manager Warren Rychel felt the Windsor Spitfires needed more toughness. So he sent a player and two Ontario Hockey League draft picks out, and got Zack Kassian back.

The kid was big, sure, and had hands as soft as felt. Kassian scored on the very first shift of his very first game with the Spitfires and, a few shifts after that, he delivered a hit that elevated him onto the national stage as a villain and, ultimately, as a suspended villain.

"It was, like, 'Christ ...'" Rychel sighed.

"I felt like the biggest, most useless trade that was made in the OHL," Kassian said with a sheepish grin on Wednesday. "But it worked out well."

The 19-year-old was suspended for 20 games for his open-ice hit on Barrie Colts forward Matt Kennedy last season, a vicious check that left Kennedy bleeding and dazed. But when Kassian returned, he helped to deliver that second Memorial Cup to his hometown Spitfires, and now he is hoping to do something similar for hockey fans across Canada -- even for those who might still only know him as the antagonist in that violent highlight.

He is the biggest forward on the biggest line Canadian coach Dave Cameron has in his arsenal heading into the IIHF world junior hockey championship in Buffalo, N.Y. Kassian, who is 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, has been skating with Marcus Foligno (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and highly touted 2011 NHL draft prospect Sean Couturier (6-foot-3, 192 pounds).

More important, Kassian is not the same player he was when he first joined Windsor from Peterborough in January. He is aggressive, but no longer as reckless. And for the first time in his career, he has more points (48) than penalty minutes (35), with ambitions for a scoring title.

"He's been really good," Rychel said. "He's controlled aggression, with and without the puck. He's very hard to take off the puck, as you've been witnessing."

Kassian was one of the best players on the ice during Canada's pre-tournament exhibition game against Sweden on Tuesday. He used his size, strength and deceptive speed to charge the net early in the second period, drawing a holding penalty on the play to give Canada a two-man advantage.

He scored moments later.

"I think he's learned to be the prototypical 'pro' winger," Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast said. "He's got soft hands, he can score. He goes to the net, he can fight and he's got all the ingredients that every NHL team is looking for in a winger."

The Buffalo Sabres liked enough of what they saw to select Kassian 13th overall in 2009, though another scrape with authority delayed his signing.

He was charged with assault with regard to an early morning bar fight in Windsor on May 30. Those charges were dropped in October, after Kassian agreed to 25 hours of community service and a $500 donation to a charity as part of a deal with the Crown.

The Sabres signed Kassian to his entry-level contract in November. Canada added him to the roster out of its selection camp earlier this month.

"I'm a real friendly guy and I like to joke around a lot, as I think anyone on this team or my Windsor team would tell you," Kassian said, smiling again Wednesday. "I'm really easygoing. Like to have a lot of fun and like to crack a lot of jokes. You just don't see it too much on the ice."

A few minutes later, he was heckling Windsor teammate and Canadian captain Ryan Ellis during a television interview. He did it again a few minutes after that, when Ellis had moved onto to a newspaper interview.

"He comes by the coaches room and we laugh our behinds off -- every day, we have a good laugh about something," Rychel said. "But when he goes on the ice and he's running around, and some-thing's wrong, he has that ability to -- not snap -- but get aggressive when he's on the ice."

Canada opens its tournament schedule against Russia on Dec. 26.

"I think the best is still ahead of him," Rychel said. "I'm not saying he's [not] leaving it all out there, but he's going to play even better when it starts for real on Boxing Day."

© Copyright (c) The Province

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