Matt Kassian of the Kamloops Blazers is a young man enjoying his development as a hockey player, acknowledging it is a step-by-step process.
The 19-year-old forward ascended the ladder of minor hockey in Sherwood Park, Alberta, where his efforts resulted in an opportunity with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League.
“All the way from initiation through my first year of midget hockey, every second of it was great,” Kassian remembers of growing up in Sherwood Park.
“There are certainly a lot of coaches and people who had an impact on my career over the years. In midget I played for Brent Gogel, who used to play in the WHL, and Al Nelson was our assistant coach.”
Following a season in the Alberta Midget Hockey League, Kassian moved west to Vancouver for the 2003-04 season. After 41 games during the 2004-05 season, Kassian experienced another change of scenery.
“I spent a year and a half in Vancouver, it was fun there and they’re a great organization,” Kassian admits. “But they needed something and Kamloops needed something, so they struck up a deal and it has been really good here since day one.
“It’s a great group of people running the organization here and the Blazers have been phenomenal in how they’ve treated me and my family.”
While Vancouver may offer some anonymity for junior hockey players, there is no hiding from the paying public in Kamloops, which is a city all about junior hockey tradition. Between 1986 and 1995, the Blazers won six WHL Championships and three Memorial Cups.
“The city is really supportive,” Kassian says. “You know if you lose a game, the fans might get on your back and then you win a game and they’re right back behind you.
“Some people have called Kamloops a ‘little Montreal,’ because it’s a very storied organization and a terrific city to play hockey. I’m really proud to be a Blazer.”
At 6’3, 232 pounds, Kassian is a physical presence, recognized league-wide as a player comfortable in parting with his gloves to accommodate opponents. He is well liked by teammates and considered a tough player to line up against.
“It doesn’t take a genius to look at my stats and figure out the physical aspect of the game and my toughness are the things I have to bring to the table every night,” Kassian laughed. He has seven points in 42 games thus far this season, a career high.
His commitment is paying off, as the Minnesota Wild made Kassian the 57th overall pick in the 2005 NHL entry draft. His first NHL training camp this fall was an eye opener.
“It was terrific experience,” Kassian smiled. “The rookie camp at Traverse City was great and then the main camp was unbelievable. I had heard from other guys about what it’s like, but until you actually get there, you really don’t understand what it’s like.
“Minnesota wants to see me continue to improve my foot speed and mobility. In November, I spoke with their head of player development, Barry McKenzie, about things and we’ll talk again in the New Year.”
Kassian, whose parents Brent and Mary reside in Sherwood Park, is riding the hockey’s learning curve, comfortable he has put the Wild’s high expectations into the proper perspective.
“It’s really just another important step on the ladder.”
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