Will Buffalo Sabres fans boo their own first-round pick at the world juniors?
Zack Kassian said he’s not worried about more than finding out Wednesday morning if he made the Canadian team.
But the huge Windsor Spitfire, the OHL’s best forward right now, will wear the villain’s black hat well across the border.
There is, unfair or not, a thuggish tint to his public image after a bar altercation in Windsor last spring and being slapped with a massive suspension in his first Spitfire home game for a head check on Barrie Colt veteran Matt Kennedy.
“I thought the 20 games was a bit harsh,” he said Tuesday at the Canadian world junior selection camp, “but I understood the league is cracking down on head shots. I was all pumped up, it was my first game at home, and from that, I learned to keep my emotions under control on the ice.
“It was hard sitting out that long, but I focused on my conditioning so I could be ready for the Memorial Cup and it worked out in the end. Toughness is part of my game and always will be. That’ll never change.”
So are tough crowds. He felt like he gave his heart to Peterborough for two years before the Windsor trade, then was surprised to be jeered in his return to face the Petes this season.
“That didn’t really bother me at all,” he said. “I think the Peterborough fans are more frustrated by their own team than me.”
He hasn’t needed to hear boos ringing in his ears to elevate his game this year. He’s the most dominant power forward in junior hockey and Spits mate Ryan Ellis, the third-time world junior defenceman who’s full of friendly advice, didn’t have to dole out any to Kassian.
This is six-foot-three, 215 pounds of motivated dude.
“My first goal this year was to make the Sabres,” said the 19-year-old from LaSalle. “I thought I showed well. I played in an exhibition game (at HSBC Arena) against Toronto, but when I didn’t make it, I wanted to make sure I got back to Buffalo for the world juniors.
“And especially after getting cut by the Canadian team last year, I was hungry (to make it this time).”
He can be an intimidating presence and U.S. goalie Jack Campbell, his Windsor teammate, said he’s glad he’s on his side, except for these two weeks after Christmas. “I’m lucky I only have to face his shot in practice,” Campbell said.
Is Kassian, though, a liability to go loco in a hot spot with the Canadians? He is a fighter extraordinaire. This season, for the first time in his OHL career, he has more points than penalty minutes. He won’t back down but he’s not getting sucked into the box by lesser players, either.
The two-time Memorial Cup champ Spitfires were supposed to be rebuilding this year. Tell that to their leading scorer Kassian, who’s been digging the pucks out of corners and creating chances.
“Everyone counted us out,” he said, “but our coaching doesn’t get enough credit and the young guys have really stepped up. I don’t know what (GM Warren Rychel will do at the trade deadline). We’re trying to make it hard on them (to sell).
“That’s the goal for Ellie and I. We want to finish in Windsor. I love playing at home.”
And the Canadian club? It could be tough to score with Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner et all in the big leagues.
“It looks to be a defensive-oriented team, but think they’re underplaying the scoring here,” Kassian said. “There’s enough firepower here. We have guys who can put the puck in the net.”
The Canadians should be entertaining from a physical sense. Three years ago, Kassian played for just-fired Guelph coach Jason Brooks on one of the best under-17 teams assembled, an Ontario squad featuring Hall, Ellis, Colorado’s Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. They pounded the Americans into submission, 3-0 for the gold medal.