Matt Kassian is about as scared of speaking his mind as he is of fighting; which, if you have ever seen the 6’5” 250 lbs left winger for the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild on the ice, he simply isn’t. Kassian is everything an NHL enforcer should be and he sums up how he plays the game, “I play it hard and I play pretty mean at times, I stay within the rules of the game but I’m very physical and I’m not afraid to be a little bit chippy sometimes…I’m sure there are some people who think I’m just an absolute lunatic, I have no doubt about that. I don’t care if people think I’m crazy when I’m playing, it’s probably better for me (that way).”
It is this tenacity and fearlessness that has brought the Edmonton, Alberta native to the ranks of the NHL but it hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t been without its hiccups. When asked if he felt anyone had any misconceptions about him he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Oh most definitely! Without a doubt! I remember reading this interview that this tough guy, Tommy Maxwell; that I used to play against gave. He told a reporter that he didn’t think I would apologize for a dirty play I made against him. I was shocked! I’ve thought about it multiple times, like ‘man if I ever meet this guy the first thing I’m going to do is apologize because it was not smart or ethical or sportsmanlike or Christian or even just anything.’ It was a dirty play and very out of character for me and was a mistake and the first thing I would do would be to apologize but obviously he didn’t think I would…or doesn’t.”
The interview Kassian referenced took place in 2008 while Maxwell was playing for the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. Maxwell told a reporter that a fight he had with Kassian in junior was his most memorable fight ever. A solid toe-to-toe tilt that ended when a heated Kassian took it too far, said Maxwell of the incident, “…at the end of the fight he pulls a little cheap move, slamming my face on the ice.” That cheap move gave Maxwell a concussion and got Kassian suspended.
Maxwell continued, “I think he probably wouldn’t apologize, but I heard he felt pretty bad about it.” That was the very statement that left Kassian shocked, and hopefully Maxwell will one day know that Kassian does indeed feel bad, and would apologize without hesitation.
It appears as though the out of character incident left a lasting impression on both men involved in the altercation; one because he was injured, the other because his actions left another human being thinking the worst of him. You see, all of those things Kassian says his play wasn’t – smart, ethical, sportsmanlike, or Christian – also happen to be the core components that make up his identity. In that one heat of the moment incident, Kassian’s actions contradicted everything he stood for, but true to his honest and caring nature, Kassian still feels remorse over the incident.
Moments such as these help show us where we fall short in life and can be used as learning tools to help us figure out the kind of people we have been, are, and strive to be. Single moments do not define who are we and people make mistakes every day, it is what we do with these moments that matters; learn from them and become better people, or don’t and see how far you get.
It is fair to say that Kassian has learned from his youthful errors and become a man who not only recognizes the good in others but also takes time to appreciate the things that have formed him into the kind-hearted and caring individual he is. Says Kassian, “I’m not the kind of person who defines myself by the fact that I play hockey or what I do; I define myself by a lot of different things but not that.”
A man who is set in his beliefs, Kassian will tell you that being a Christian has influenced his career in a big way, “My career has been an unlikely one I guess. There’s been a lot of people along the way, and not necessarily people who are really important to me like family and close friends, but there have been a lot of people and a lot of coaches along the way who told me I would never make it, never amount to it. There’s been reporters and fans and people have told me all kinds of things, stuff that would shock you…Some of the things that happened in my career and the way that things happened were just so out of my control that it took a lot of reliance on the Lord, it really did. You have so little control over everything that you really just have to trust all that stuff to Jesus and that’s ultimately what it came down to for me.”
For those who find it surprising that a man of God would choose to fill such a controversial on ice role, Kassian is quick to disagree, “It does not surprise me at all. To paraphrase Stu Grimson who is an absolute killer who is a Christian guy, ‘Who better to be out there protecting and fighting for his teammates, sacrificing, putting himself in harm’s way for his teammates than a guy who loves Jesus.’ Really it doesn’t surprise me because it is, quite honestly, a very sacrificial thing and it’s difficult to do. I mean you’re going out and your body is tired and you’re putting yourself in harm’s way and oftentimes it’s to protect someone on your team or to stop someone from doing something unnecessary to your teammate so yeah it doesn’t surprise me.”
As far as facing any issues with other players when it comes to his beliefs he had this to say, “…Maybe it’s the nature of the role that I play on teams as well- as far as punching people straight in the face- that guys, don’t necessarily watch what they say but are respectful. There’s going to be little things but it’s the kind of thing that I think for most people it’s like ‘well that’s what you believe and that’s fine, just don’t push it on me.’ I think for the most part guys are fine with it. I haven’t really had a lot of issues with that and I don’t anticipate that I will. It’s just a little different in a hockey environment as opposed to maybe a normal work environment with guys where you’re sweating together you’re bleeding together essentially just going through battle together so it’s ok at times to have your differences and I think most guys are accepting of that.”
Kassian also turns to some bible verses to help him along the way, “I have a couple; I have one that is up in my car windshield on a wrapped up piece of paper on a piece of twine on my rearview mirror. And that’s ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39), and Psalm 91 is a big one for me, the whole chapter I enjoy, it’s very common. And then there’s one ‘Whatever you do, do with all your might’ (Ecclesiastes 9:10) and that includes punching people in the face. And then ‘The Lord has not given you a spirit of fear and timidity but of strength’ (2 Timothy 1:7). There’s a lot.”
As far as him staying true to his identity and his beliefs, it ultimately comes down to accountability and he stresses the same for players coming up in the leagues, “You have to make a stand early and you have to understand that although I haven’t had an experience where guys have been cruel or mean or very adverse to me being a Christian guy, I know without a doubt that there are people, especially younger people, especially the guys between the ages of 12 and 16 that are playing that won’t be, that will be very harsh with things, that will put a lot of pressure on things. For me I would tell those kids, or anyone, adults too, is that you really have to make a stand early. It’s such an important thing. It’s one of those situations where if you start saying no early it’s going to be easier and easier to say no each time. Ground yourself in a community of people who are going to support you. Don’t alienate yourself from your teammates but make sure you have, whether its friends from your church or family and friends from back home a bible study or small group, some kind of a community to keep you accountable and to support you because it’s not always going to be easy and a lot of the things that are going to come at you are going to be very tempting and they are going to look very fun at times, and look like they are going to be very rewarding and gratifying in the short term. It’s about saying no and having people help you say no.”
Kassian leaves little room for interpretation when it comes to what identity really means to him, “You can’t get caught up in how you are as a player because then you start finding your identity in how you are as a player and what you are as a player,” he continues, “You’re going to get told ‘no’ by people. There are obviously people that’s not going to happen for, there are the Sidney Crosby’s of the world, the Taylor Hall’s and the Nugent-Hopkins’, players who are the first round draft picks but for a lot of guys sooner or later there’s going to be a wakeup call, even if you play ten years in the NHL when your career is done, I mean hockey is done now, what are you and who are you? You cannot get caught up in being completely high on yourself because sooner or later it’s going to be gone.”
For Matt, his faith is a key component to his identity and figuring out where he stood with it was a huge step in knowing who he would be both on and off the ice, “That point probably came in a period of time I guess for me between about 19 and 21, which I know is kind of a drawn out time but it was a real time of searching and making some mistakes and basically came to a point where I had to decide this is real, Jesus is real, and I believe in Jesus and I’m really going to start to try to live my life for this, or I’m just not. So it kind of came to a crossroads then where I was and came into my own with it.”
Kassian’s words may come off as being a bit harsh but they are honest and candid. He most certainly does not want to leave anyone feeling alienated and wants people to always have good experiences when talking to him. “I want them (people) to walk away being like ‘Wow that guy is really good looking!’ No, I think I would just want people to know that I’m genuine, not full of it or full of myself. For a fan or people who don’t know me but who come up and introduce themselves to me that I talk to for a few minutes, I would really like them to know and see that I’m genuine. I’m not perfect but that I do care about meeting them and I do care about people and that I enjoy having an impact on people and I’m very fortunate to be in the position I’m in and to be able to spend some time and talk to people and be able to bless their lives a little bit is quite an honor. Just genuine, that’s the big word for me to be.”
Ultimately he is nothing short of a prankster and a good-hearted guy centered on faith and family. His antics can be seen daily on his twitter feed chronicling the “gnome wars” – which all began one fateful day Kassian and his brothers discovered that their mother hated garden gnomes and took it upon themselves to replace her beloved rooster collection with the creepy little porcelain men- as well as in his #FivesList and #Shinslist trending topics.
What is #Shinslist? Kassian explains, “I got home one day from working out and I was just eating some food and watching TV, which is a rarity, I don’t really watch all that much TV, but I was watching and flipping through the channels and I stopped for about, literally less than a minute and the view was on TV. I spent less than a minute watching this and I thought to myself ‘These ladies are ridiculous. Not all of them all the time but for the most part yeah, if a little kid were to walk up to them in the middle of the TV show and kick them as hard as he could in the shins and just be like ‘that’s for being like you are’ I bet it would do them a world of good. Like it would completely change their lives, I do not doubt that for a second. And so that’s what started it. I just decided to make a list of people who would really benefit from being kicked in the shins, you don’t even have to tell them what it’s about, just walk up to them and boot them as hard as you can in the shins and it would solve a lot of the world’s problems and a lot of the people who are just being big meat sticks might figure some stuff out.”
While you probably don’t want to take a literal kick to the shins from Matt Kassian, you can always submit a #ShinsList moment to him on his twitter @kassassination.
After an hour-long conversation, which included a lot of profound statements as well as a lot of hilarious commentary from the enforcer, ultimately Kassian leaves people with two seemingly simple questions that should be pondered and answered with pure honesty, “…who are you? What are you?” The answers to these may be far more complicated than you have ever really considered but may open your eyes to the kind of person you are truly striving to be. So at the end of the day when the rink is dark, the hockey is gone, and it’s just you and what you stand for, ask yourself, “Who am I? What am I?”
For more hilarious pictures, game photos, and news on the various happenings in Kassian’s life, visit his homepage www.kassassin.com.
As season begins and the summer ends remember to stay true to who you are, no matter where you play.
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And for good measure, check out these videos of Kassian in action on the ice!