Edmonton has always been that blue-collar town where we value hard work and people showing up day in and day out to get the job done. We expect it at our place of work and we expect it from our sports teams. Nowhere else in Canada, if not North America do the fans place more pressure on their teams to perform than in Edmonton.

We’ve faced a decade of tough times and after this past season for the Edmonton Oilers, there is definitely a buzz again and a level of excitement not felt for the past ten years. With names like Connor, Leon and Patrick in the lineup each night, Edmonton is no longer a place visiting NHL teams come to counting on picking up two points in the standings. But with all the star power the team now has, it’s the guys behind the scenes that allow for the talent to shine through.

The Oilers have always had tough guys. Guys who would come to the aid of the stars or play a tough grinding shift to give the first line players a chance to recover and come out for their next shift energized. Players like Laraque, McSorley, Brown and Semenko are household names in the city, and while the league has changed over the years where players are expected to be more than just enforcers, a new breed of tough guys like Hendricks, Lucic and Kassian have become fan favorites for their hard working play.

When Peter Chiarelli made the trade with Montreal for Zack Kassian two years ago, it left a lot of Oiler fans scratching their heads. He was public enemy number one for many fans here after a vicious high stick on Sam Gagner a few years back that caused the former Oilers forward to miss 13 games and receive some new dental work. We’ve heard the stories of his battles with alcohol and many fans were not sold on his joining the team.

But we’re done talking about that time in Zack’s life. Over his past two years here, he’s earned the respect of Oiler fans and it’s time to put that part of his life to rest and focus on what he brings to the team. He was looking for a fresh start, and he found it in Edmonton and we couldn’t be happier that he did.

If I’m sounding like a fan-boy, then guilty as charged.

I’ve always been a fan of the guys who could score. They energize the arena and get us jumping up out of our seats. Eberle’s first goal against the Calgary Flames. McDavid’s goal back after injury splitting the defense against Columbus. The list could go on and on.

But I’ve always been a fan of the guys who grind it out in the corners. They make the big hit happen to energize the team (and the fans). The ones who will jump to the aid of their teammates when there is a dirty hit dished out by the other team.

For me, the love for Zack started after a hit by the Coyote’s Oliver Ekman-Larson on Oilers Matt Hendricks. Oiler fans felt it was a dirty hit and then with Hendricks down on the ice, Ekman-Larson gave him another crosscheck in the back and stood over him almost daring him to get up. Seconds later, in comes Zack to his teammates defense.

Team toughness has been something that has been lacking for years and team management has begun to address this. The addition of Kassian and his recent three year contract extension have shown their commitment to this.

“I think you need a mix to your team,” says Kassian. “You can’t do it with all speed or all skill, or even just toughness. You need a good mix of players to be able to jell well and bond the team.”

Gone are the days of the “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia where you could win games simply based on intimidation and toughness. You need a mix of team toughness and skill.

“Teams that play our team know now that they aren’t going to be able to run around and hit our tough guys,” says Kassian. “They know that they will have to answer.” Throughout an 82 game season, it’s important for the top guys to not have to worry about those types of hits so that they can focus on their own contributions on the ice.

Something many of us fans don’t realize is how fast the game is. We watch from our couch or bar stool and we see a player make a pass or hit another player and wonder how they missed that open guy, or if the hit was borderline dirty.

When Hendricks was hit by Ekman-Larson, it was a quick decision by Kassian to respond. While he felt it might have been borderline dirty, he knew he had to come to the aid of his teammate regardless of the consequences.

“You have to be there for your teammates,” he says “ so that other teams know they won’t be able to do that against us.”

Players today need to build strength and also have speed. The league is much quicker than it was in earlier generations. You can no longer hold, hook, or interfere with players to slow the skilled guys down so just being a tough guy doesn’t cut it anymore. You have to be a player the coach can depend on in certain situations to be able to go out on the ice to create a big hit, while not being a risk defensively.

“In the offseason, I like to take a couple weeks off just to recover from the grind of the year,” he says. With the extra month of hockey they played this year with the exciting playoff run, it’s needed even more.

The first phase after this recovery period for Zack is to build strength. He needs to create that foundation and spends a couple weeks with some power and speed work and some plyometrics before ending the offseason building back up his cardiovascular endurance.

“A hockey player needs to be good at everything,” he says. “It’s not like a football player where you play for 20 seconds and then you stop. You need to be as agile and quick as you can so there are multiple things you need to work on through the summer.”

Zack has worked over the summer on keeping up his strength while dropping weight. This allows him to be quick since that is a huge part of today’s game, while still allowing him to create those big hits and tough in the corners on the forecheck. Working out has become a habit for him rather than a job, but he also understands that in order to prolong your career in the NHL, you need to take care of yourself physically.

Mental fitness and decompressing is something that is tough for many professional athletes. Trying to get your mind off the game is tough when you have a game every second day or occasionally play back-to-back games. You’re always wanting to be prepared mentally so that you don’t lose your focus.

“To unwind, I don’t do a lot during the year,” he says. “We tend to hang out with our friends on the team and our families. I don’t watch hockey on my days off. I like to unwind in the summer since you’re in the grind during the season and you can’t take your foot off the gas. If I come in to a game relaxed, that’s not a good sign for me.”

Boating and motorcycling are his two main ways of getting away from things in the summer. Heading back to Windsor with his fiancé and his dog get his mind cleared and a long ride on his Harley-Davidson help put life into perspective.

Kassian recently bought a home in Edmonton and is looking forward to making the city his home. The city has become a destination that other NHLers WANT to play in now rather than a place they get traded to and are looking for a way out as soon as they get here. Let’s admit it, the city is darn cold in the long winters. But with the new arena and the addition of some talented players over the past couple years, we no longer have to overpay free agents to want to come here. They see the benefits of playing on a contending team.

“Everything is coming together in Edmonton,” says Kassian. “ I really can’t think of a better place to play with the players, the new arena, the fans and the buzz that has built around this team. If you’re a player and you want to win and play with a highly competitive team, Edmonton would be up at the top of your list now.”

If you weren’t playing hockey, what would you be doing?

I’d be a firefighter or a police officer.

How would the guys in the locker room describe you?

It depends who you ask. I’m a jokester. I like to keep it light, funny and goofy before a game.

Who would be your toughest guy in the NHL to go up against?

There’s not one specific guy and I don’t want to give away my secrets (laughing). I want to keep my mental edge.

Gordie Howe hat-trick or regular hat-trick?

Gordie Howe. Not even a question.

Any game day rituals that you like to follow?

I go get a Starbucks coffee with a shot of espresso

What’s your favorite goal scored as an Oiler so far?

(Long pause) I don’t know why it’s so hard. I haven’t scored that many. I’d have to say the playoff breakaway goal against San Jose. It was a meaningful goal and there was a lot of energy in the building.

Has it sunk in yet that you’re a fan favorite in Edmonton?

No. Everywhere I’ve played, fans always seem to like the way I play. We have a lot of good players on our team. The fans are great and very passionate. I don’t consider myself a fan favorite. I know they like the rough and tough stuff. It’s nice being liked on a team for sure. It’s nice to know that people appreciate what you’re doing out there.