Ben Kuzma September 13, 2016
It would have been so easy for Cole Cassels to hold a pity party last season.
Lots of moaning and groaning about a transition from junior to pro that went off the rails for the Vancouver Canucks’ prospect centre. Slowed by an abdominal injury and trying to heal and strengthen micro tears in his core, while also attempting to impress Utica Comets coach Travis Green, was always going to be a losing proposition.
It was also a rite of passage because adversity strikes sooner or later.
Being limited to just two goals and seven points in 67 American Hockey League games — following a 30-goal season and leading the Oshawa Generals to the Memorial Cup title — was overshadowed by how the Canucks’ third-round pick in the 2013 National Hockey League draft handled the hardship.
Credit his father, former Canucks centre Andrew Cassels, for providing proper perspective because he had his share of injury setbacks in logging 1,015 career games with six teams. He also had hip-replacement surgery in May of 2015 and drove the next day from Columbus to Quebec City — a 20-hour trek — to see his son capture the Memorial Cup.
The 21-year-old centre is now fit, faster, stronger and avoided surgery this summer because his rehab program provided the right results after the right level of commitment.
Cassels will compete in the Young Stars tournament this weekend in Penticton, a measuring-stick event and his sense of anticipation and personal setback acceptance is understandable.
“I was always taught to never complain and take what you’re given,” Cassels said Tuesday following an informal skate at Rogers Arena. “He (father) was my coach in minor hockey and I don’t think I could have complained to him much. It’s a learning curve and you have to adapt because my dad was a first-rounder and played in the minors, too.
“I gave it all I could last year and worked my hardest. They (Canucks) knew that I couldn’t perform the way I wanted to or like most people thought I could. But most people go through that in a career and I was lucky enough to do it when I was young.”
With a stronger core, Cassels believes the injury he sustained at a Team USA world junior camp was a tough lesson to learn. During a warm-up in which he did a lunge and then felt something strange in the abdominal region, his resolve was going to be tested.
And because Cassels still projects as a third-line Canucks centre with a game that packs skill and an edge, there’s reason to believe the setback was a silver lining of understanding his body and the maintenance required to consistently perform at a peak level.
“I want to be the player I am and not the player he (Green) saw last year,” added Cassels. “I want to get back to my two-way style — smart hockey and tough hockey — and I like to win whether it’s a battle or a game. I’ll put it all on the line when I’m playing my best and I’ve got to get back to that and I can.
“It (AHL) is a tough league to get points. It’s going to be about gaining the trust of Travis and my teammates that I can go out and play a regular shift and be useful to the team.”
That’s encouraging for the Comets and the Canucks. Green gave Cassels a lot of rope because how do you come down on a kid who’s facing every possible hurdle in a transition season and tripping over them through no fault of his own?
“Cole had one of those years,” said Green. “I didn’t grind on him and I didn’t yell at him a lot or be overly hard on him. He had a year where he was just trying to stay afloat. He gave us everything he had, but we were very direct at our meetings at the end of year because, in the past, he didn’t commit as much off the ice as he should have.”
And now Cassels has and that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train — it’s a brighter future. He helped shut down Connor McDavid in the OHL final in 2015 and is now open to the concept of what could be down the road.
“I feel really good and I’m looking forward to Penticton to get my feet wet and gain confidence,” said Cassels. “It (tourney) is quick hockey and that will be good for training camp and the season. It’s another step. I don’t like to look too far ahead, but a lot of young guys do and they can get caught up in it.”