After living in a self-professed ‘hell’ the past two seasons as an Oilers prospect, former first-round selection Rob Schremp is looking forward to a clean slate with Edmonton’s new regime.
Slightly humbled, but only slightly, Schremp admits to a diminishing of confidence — but certainly doesn’t display any less hubris. He’s looking forward to showing the new coaching staff what it means to play "Rob Schremp hockey," and finally making a permanent on the roster.
"I’m just looking for a fair chance," he said. "I just want to play my game and play how I can play. I just want to be able to play my game and play Rob Schremp hockey. Obviously there are things you have to work on, like defensive play and systems, but those are the things that every player has to work on.
"It’s just a matter of getting a clean slate and sometimes you don’t get the right impression on the right person. It happens. Not everybody’s going to like your game. There’s 30 teams, right? Sometimes one coach might not like you, or whatever, but you have to find a way to adapt. Now with a clean slate I can go out and play my game, play the way I know I can play, and not worry about this or that — it’s just about what I can do."
That one coach in question is former Oilers’ head coach Craig MacTavish. And that clean slate comes in the form of an overhauled front office and coaching staff. Kevin Lowe is the new president, Steve Tambellini headed east from Vancouver to assume the mantle of Oilers general manager, and veteran head coach Pat Quinn is the club’s new head coach, with Tom Renney on board as an associate coach. Considering the caustic relationship that Schremp and MacTavish had, Schremp is looking at this as an opportunity to show what he can do to, hopefully, a more receptive set of eyes. However, he’s not expecting anything to be handed to him.
"No one’s going to roll out the red carpet for me — they didn’t do it when I got drafted, they’re not going to do it now that I’m 23 years old and with three years in the minors," he said.
MacTavish famously ripped Schremp last season in response to a question regarding why the young forward was not being called up to the NHL roster. To be fair, Schremp regressed last season, finishing the year with only seven goals and 42 points with Springfield.
"I don’t know if it was personal or not. Who knows? It’s up to Craig to say. Obviously there was something he didn’t like in me, so that’s why I spent the last three years in the minors. That’s just how it goes. I didn’t have that much time to get to know him, it’s not like we’re buddies or anything. I was there for four years for a month in training camp. You don’t really build with a coach in a month, so I don’t know him that well. I’ve had a few dinners with him after getting sent down last year. I don’t know if it’s personality-wise — I just think it was more he didn’t like what he saw in my game," Schremp said. "Last year was tough — going up and down. Last year I played well up, then was sent back down to a last-place team. A lot of it had to do with my play down there — my play sucked. It was a tough situation — it was just one of those years in hockey that you want to erase. It just sucked.
"At least I don’t have to come off of that horrible year with a black cloud hanging over my head. It’s a clean slate. That year’s over and now I don’t have to have the same negative thoughts in my head. Now I have a chance this summer to regroup, get my thoughts back, prioritize, and realize what I have to do to get to the NHL."
Schremp’s game is all about scoring goals. He’s been criticized for a lack of speed — something he’s been working on and has seen improvement with. He’s also not exactly Bob Gainey in the defensive end, but he’s cognisant of the need to play that game at the next level. That said, Schremp is Schremp, and he’s planning on staying on that track en route to the NHL. The one thing he’s never lacked is confidence — until now.
"It’s hasn’t even been up and down [repeatedly]. It’s up once, down once — brutal. Yeah, I think I need to build that [confidence] back up," Schremp said. "I’ve spent the summer building up a shell. You have to fill up your own self. Playing hockey, nobody’s going to help you in this world. It’s the same in any aspect of this life. You have to believe in yourself if you’re going to make an improvement.
"It’s going to be about me having the confidence and me proving myself and my game. You know, the guys [in camp] are NHLers. They don’t doubt themselves. They carry themselves like, ‘Yeah, I’m an NHL hockey player and I play here.’ That’s the confidence you have to have, and it’s hard to do that as an AHLer. Sometimes it’s like they look and say, ‘Who are you? You’re an AHL hockey player,’ but if you want to make it you have to be like, ‘This is who I am.’"
Schremp is not the only one looking forward to a new beginning, both Sam Gagner and Marc-Anthoine Pouliot are young stalwarts on the Oilers roster and are relishing the opportunity that comes with a new regime.
"Those are things you really can’t control," Pouliot said. "I’ve heard a lot of good things about Pat Quinn, I don’t know know Pat Quinn and Tom Renney personally, but I think it’s going to be a good thing for the organization. For me, I just have to concentrate on my game, and we’ll see what happens. It’s a new chance to show a new coach what I can do to contribute to the team. It’s our first opportunity to show him what we can do and I’m anxious to get to the camp.
"I’ve worked hard and trained hard this summer and I’m hoping that it will pay off this year on the ice."
Gagner is more established on the Oilers roster and he hopes his past preparation and production will hold him in good stead with the new coaching staff.
"I don’t think I can focus too much on what happened," Gagner said. "There’s going to be changes, especially when you have more than a couple of years not making the playoffs. For me, my preparation’s been pretty much the same, getting ready for camp. I still know what I have to do to be successful and I feel like I’ve developed a lot over the past couple of years. I’ve learned a lot from the older guys and the coaching staff, and I’m going to try and take that into the new season. I’m hearing great things about the new coaching staff that’s been implemented. Hopefully I can go in and have a good year, and have some fun doing it.
"There’s still a lot of time before we go into our first regular-season game, so I’m sure going into camp and throughout camp they’ll be talking with guys about what their expectations are with them. I think that’s something that for now you really can’t worry about. Different players bring different facets to the game and I have to focus on what I can bring right now and get ready for the season in that regard. Obviously they’re going to place some expectations on me and I’m going to have to fulfill those as best I can."
But for Schremp, the change means opportunity. After three stellar seasons with the Knights, which included a 2004-05 Memorial Cup win and culminated with a 2005-06 campaign during which he scored 57 goals and 88 assists in 57 regular-season games, adding 10 goals and 37 assists in 19 playoff games, Schremp’s pro career has been solid, but unspectacular. He played 69 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2006-07, scoring 17 goals and adding 36 assists. He was called up for one game to Edmonton that season. The following ear he played in 78 games with the Springfield Falcons, finishing with 23 goals and 76 points, and earning a two-game call up. Then last year, Schremp regressed, finishing the year with seven goals and 42 points in 69 games with Springfield. Over the three years, he’s suited up for the Oilers seven times, with three assists to his name — all coming last season.
"[The past three years have been] pretty tough obviously," he said. "It’s frustrating. Everybody will give a bullshit answer like, ‘That’s what it is and that’s what I have to do,’ but what I really feel about it is that it’s frustrating. You have expectations for yourself and goals that you want to reach, but then they’re out of reach or they’ve become unreachable for a for whatever reason, it can get frustrating."
Compounding the issue is the fact that Schremp is currently a restricted free agent. He said he’s not expecting it to be a problem and that they’re currently negotiating a contract. By camp he expects to have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.
"I’ve gotten harder, more focused on my off-ice," he said. "You work out and everybody does the same [thing]. It’s not like I’m doing anything different than any other hockey player, but there’s more things you can do, like dieting and protein shakes. Working out with Sammy Gagner at that gym [Dave Gagner’s gym in London, ON] has really helped me a lot. I feel great on the ice, I feel great off the ice. You know, last year I went out and saw Chad Morrow and I got all the weightlifting down, but I didn’t have a good diet. I came in to camp… [pausing] I wasn’t fat at camp [pause]. I didn’t come in… I didn’t get the best results that I could if I had been on track with everything. This time I knew I had to buckle down.
"My first contract’s up — I don’t have any safety net, right? It’s do or die this year. I had to buckle down, work extra hard this summer, and I got my passion back, the drive. I want to be in the NHL. I’m sick of being sent down on October 3rd and being an AHLer, hoping to get called back up."
However, Schremp said that just as having a contract didn’t cause complacency, nor will the lack of a contract be a motivating factor.
"Playing in the AHL sucks and that’s enough to drive you. [Having a contract] is not a safety net at all — if you have a one-way contract, that’s a safety net. You go down, you’re going to make whatever money — that’s how it goes," Schremp explained. "It’s not even about NHL money or AHL money. Playing in the NHL, being in the NHL is what it’s all about for me — I’m not even sure what the money is. It’s all about being there and that’s what my dream was and it gives you that drive. Coming off the season people as where you play, ‘You know, I play in the AHL’ instead of being able to say, ‘Yeah, I play in Edmonton!’ It’s kind of the harsh reality, but that’s the way it is."
Schremp is one of three young Oilers participating in the Euro-Can Cup, a four-team, round-robin tournament in London, Ontario featuring a squad of present and former Knights alumni (along with some players loosely related to the franchise) facing off against three European squads: EV Zug of the Swiss Nationalliga A; EHC Black Wings Linz, of the Erst Bank Hockey League, and EHC Munchen, from Germany‘s Second Bundesliga. He’s joined on the Knights roster by Gagner and Poulot — one of those tangentally related players, who suited up for the Rimouski Oceanic against London in the 2005 Memorial Cup.
Training and playing with those two has helped him build his confidence through comparison.
"These guys are turning into great pros. They’re good hockey players — they’re great hockey players," he said. "I have that confidence because I know I can play with those guys. I played with them; I’ve played against them. Well, I haven’t played against Sammy, but playing against Poullie — I played in the same league as him, I did the same kind of things that he did, and I know I can play the game."
Schremp still enjoys rock star status in London, earning the second-most enthusiastic cheer during pre-game introductions — paled only by the warm welcome paid to Sam’s father 45-year-old Dave Gagner, whose hockey involvement tends to be of the off-ice variety. The former Knights’ assistant coach now serves as the Vancouver Canucks‘ director of player development. Schremp admitted that coming back to London’s a great way to relive some memories — and rekindle those flames of confidence that have flickered all too often as of late.
"It’s awesome. It’s fun. You shelter yourself with what you like, and these are definitely my fonder years, playing here. There’s about seven or eight of us who come back [to London] every year and hang out, enjoy the city, play golf, and train," Schremp said. "It just such a great place. People always talk about cutting the cord, but I don’t think we’re ever going to cut the cord from here. It’s such a beautiful rink, a great city, and it’s great to come back here. Can’t beat it — London’s the best.
"Coming back here and seeing that Knights room, it’s fun. It takes you back to the old days. Like I said you try to build that confidence back up and build that game up. You remember what you did here, and you get back on the ice at the [John Labatt Centre] and you remember the times. It’s cool, you’re seeing Dale [Hunter] every day for a couple of weeks and it’s like he’s your coach again for a little while. It’s a good atmosphere here; it really gets you pumped up."
A recent contest against EV Zug saw what could easily be considered a classic Schrempian game. He took a useless, retaliatory penalty early in the first. He redeemed himself for that play with an assist on an all-Edmonton goal by the younger Gagner, with Pouliot chipping in the second assist. Then he ended the second with a goal, on an assist from Sam Gagner. And in the final frame, he did what we saw so often in London — scored the game-winning power-play goal with a laser of a wrist shot to the top corner over Zug netminder Jussi Markkanen’s glove hand.
It was a game like so many others that Schremp has enjoyed in the Forest City. It’s also the type of game that’s been few and far between since he left southwestern Ontario. And he feels the tournament is going to give him a jump-start on cracking the roster this year.
"It’s fun, seeing all the boys — just the camaraderie. It’s just a fun summer tournament for seven days. It’s for a good cause too, Shoot for the Cure. There’s so many positives. You get the possibility of five games to prepare before an NHL camp. Not many guys get that. Most guys are playing shinny hockey or pick-up, and we get to play actual hockey against actual European teams. There’s hitting and full contact. That’s such a huge advantage going into NHL camp," he said. "We’ve been on the ice for three weeks. Guys have all been here for about a week. All of us here, we’re all shooting for the same thing — NHL camp, NHL camp. Just getting in the rhythm of the game, seeing the boys joking around, and getting back out on that ice, getting to skate, that’s probably the coolest thing. You get that couple of weeks in here, then you’re back to your pro job, or back at camp."
And far be it for the restricted free agent to think he could compromise his career by getting injured in an exhibition tournament. Several other players, including recent Toronto draft pick Nazem Kadri, Washington Capitals‘ prospect John Carlson, and New York Rangers blueliner Michael Del Zotto pulled out on the eve of the tournament for various reasons — but the whispers are that their NHL franchises nixed their participation. For Schremp, the potential good far outweighs any potential bad.
"It’s tough to think like that playing hockey, or for any athlete. You can get hurt training. Guys train so hard these days that you can get hurt training. You know when you are playing your pick-up or shinny, when you think about it things can happen," he said. "There are way more positives playing in a game like this. The negatives of playing a shinny game are way higher than playing in this. You get that game shape back — that’s what everyone always says.
"You hear those interviews and guys are talking about at the beginning of the year about game shape, game shape, game shape. Shinny hockey is bad habit shape."
Sam Gagner said he agrees, adding that playing against professional competition like the European squads is helping to accelerate his off-season preparation.
"I think it’s great. Obviously any time you get to play in some game situations before heading to camp that’s a huge benefit. I’ve talked about the fact that practice shape is greatly different than game shape," Gagner added. "The only way to get into game shape is to play games, so it’s a great opportunity for me to do that here. There’s some great competition and I felt better as the last game went along and hopefully I’ll keep feeling better as I head to camp.
"Especially at this point in the summer it’s great competition for us. A lot of these guys have been playing together for a month or so and they’re in good game shape. For us it’s a good test in trying to get better and trying to get ready for the season."
But despite his past experience, has Schremp grown enough to earn a spot on the NHL roster? Has he accepted the criticisms of his game and applied them to make himself a more viable member of the squad? While looking towards other NHLers for inspiration, it appears that Schremp will for now — and likely always be — Schremp.
"I don’t know. I guess, you just have to stay true to your game," he said. "I think that’s the way I’m looking at it now. You try to make adjustments and you get too much going on in your head, then it’s just a [disaster]. You want to stay focused on what you can do as a player and what you can do in your game. You see some of the guys who are like my situation — maybe they’re 24, 25 and then they jump into the NHL. Look at Brad Boyes — he’s an incredible NHL hockey player, but it took him a while to get there. Dan Cleary’s another incredible player and hopefully I can be successful like them and follow in their path. Those guys, whatever you want to say, I look up to them and see their situation.
"But the main thing is that those guys stuck to their game and if believe in yourself, that’s how you’re going to make it."