Admittedly, there was a time when Oliver Kylington couldn’t think about hockey at all.

Let alone, commit his life to the sport with a tortuous, ubiquitous, and highly personal mental-health battle to conquer first.

“There were times in my process where I couldn't allow that,” said Kylington, who returned to the Flames lineup on Jan. 25 after a year-and-a-half away, and almost immediately found joy again. “There was a lot of stuff in my personal life that was eating me up and I had to really be there for myself in a different way than I ever had before.

“I had to find my values in life that have nothing to do with hockey.

“A foundation.

“It was about reclaiming myself. And once I did that, I could then do the same for hockey, which made it all feel very special. I began appreciating all the small things in life that come with hockey. You’re obviously very privileged to play a game that you've enjoyed playing as a kid, and are now lucky enough to make it as a lifestyle.

“I definitely don’t take it for granted.

“Now, more than ever.”

On Thursday, Kylington was announced as one of three finalists for the Bill Masterton Trophy – an award given annually to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Richly deserved.

Yet, incredibly humbling for the soft-spoken blueliner, who over the past two years, has become an inspiration for so many.

"This is something I never thought would happen in my life," Kylington said of the honour. "I'm realizing more and more what this award means and how special it is. I'm so honoured, so grateful, and so, so excited."

When Kylington stepped away from the game after an impeccable showing in the 2022 playoffs, the decision didn’t come easy. He worked his entire life to get to that point and didn’t know if the game would be there for waiting for him on the other side – whenever that would be.

“It hasn't been easy for him and it hasn't been easy for us teammates, either,” said captain Mikael Backlund. “Guys who were here when he played his last game (in 2022) were all wondering when – or if – he was going to come back, and obviously our concern was about him as a person more than the player.

"But we were all super excited to see him come back this year. I'm so proud of him for having the courage to take a break and deal with what he needed to. He's a known figure, pretty famous in Calgary being an NHL player, and it's not easy to take time off to deal with that kind of stuff. But I'm proud that he did and you can tell that he's a happier person now, is doing a lot better.

“Then, the transition to him coming back, he was playing so well for us this year and it was pretty crazy how well he played right off the hop.

“It’s well deserved. Hopefully he wins it.”


Kylington finished the season with eight points (3G, 5A) in 33 games, while averaging 17:15 in ice time

Kylington credits former GM Brad Treliving, current boss Craig Conroy, and President of Hockey Operations Don Maloney for putting their full support behind him when he made the call two years ago.

But the courage to do so?

That was all him, laying it all bare in the most vulnerable time of his life.

“I didn’t know when I was going to come back, and that’s a hard thing for anyone to admit,” Kylington says over the phone from Sweden. “Everything that I went through was unrelated to hockey. My journey in life, my experience, was a personal trauma that happened with an individual in my life, with my family.

“The hockey side has always been there. I've known that I can play the game, that I can do what I do on the ice. But we all have our problems. But we’re all human. As a human, you have to take responsibility for yourself and take care of yourself first and foremost. And then, proceed with what you want to do in life.

“As a performer – a high-level hockey player, a high-performance athlete – if you don't have stability in your life, you can't perform. You just can’t.

“With my life with all the circumstances I had to go through to get back, I have stability again. But I had to take responsibility to find it.

“No one could do that for me.”

The next step was integrating the two, with a long road back to the game happening in stages – managing both his physical fitness with NHL-style drills, while maintaining all the progress he made in self-care.

He began skating with a small group of teammates on Dec. 1 before charting a course back to the Flames, debuting with the AHL’s Wranglers early in the new year, where it quickly became obvious he’d turned a corner and was ready to make the jump.

Two weeks later, he did just that.

“There's a saying in Swedish, 'You don't have to paint the picture bigger than it is,’” Kylington said of his return to the game. “I didn't try to make it as a big thing for myself to come back and play in the biggest league in the world.

“I just said to myself, 'Look, you started off playing with your friends and for the love of the game.' And I think everyone around the Flames organization and my teammates made it feel authentic, to come back like I've never left.”

NHL teams often talk about ‘culture’ and how locker-rooms operate more like family than a group of colleagues.

But here in Calgary, there’s real, tangible proof of that.

If Kylington wins the Masterton, he would become the third player in franchise history to be bestowed with the honour, joining Gary Roberts (1995-96) and the mustachioed icon Lanny McDonald (1982-83), with whom a deep, personal friendship took root this past year.


Gary Roberts won the Masterton in 1995-95 after returning from a serious neck injury

In fact, when Lanny suffered a cardiac event back in February and spent the next couple of weeks recovering in hospital, Kylington was eagerly texting to check up on him and offer well wishes and words of encouragement.

That’s Oliver Kylington for you.

“Talk about a friendship that goes way beyond the game,” Lanny says, a quiver in his voice. “I was texting back and forth throughout the year with Oliver. It’s so cool to have a connection like that with a current member of our team.

“When you think about where he's been for the last couple years – and you talk about perseverance and sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey – that fits him to a T.

“I would be shocked if he doesn't win.

“But even to be in the final three is unbelievable. What he's been able to do, come back and play this great game and especially at the level that he's played since he came back; trying to get back into game shape, and then really stepping up and being probably a top-four defenceman on his team, speaks volumes about his perseverance.


Look back on Oliver's top plays of the season

Lanny chuckles when asked to reflect on winning the award more than 40 years ago, saying the pomp and frills of the league’s annual awards gala have rightfully been kicked up a few notches since.

But when it comes to the history of the trophy and the litany of greats whose names are now (literally) embedded in hockey lore, the significance of the award cannot be understated.

“Just look at the people who won it before me,” Lanny says. “I played with Chico Resch in Colorado and what a great teammate he was, what a great example he was to everyone else. To be able to follow in his footsteps after he won it the year before was truly incredible.

“You look at the list of everyone above that. People like Henri Richard, Rod Gilbert, Butch Goring… the list goes on and on. I was, quite frankly, taken aback.

“When you love the game and play it hard but would like to believe you play it with perseverance and sportsmanship along with that, I'm so happy for Oliver to not only be a finalist, but I hope beyond hope – what a great example he would be for everyone in society – that he could make this triumphant return to the game and win.”

Kylington never owed anything to anyone but himself.

And yet, in traversing this path and navigating life’s curveballs, he discovered an immense sense of gratitude and deep devotion to those that helped him prevail.

“When I was going through and dealing with everything, I had their support,” he said of the Flames. “So, I knew – deep down – that when I came back, I wanted to give everything I had for them. My team. The organization. Because they gave me the trust and I wanted to return the favour. Without them, it wouldn’t have been the same. We live a different type of life and there's games that has to be played and responsibilities that you have to take, and they all put their neck out for me.

“I felt that.

“They helped create that safe space for me and I wanted to know that when I came back, I would be ready. For real.”

Whether he knows it or not, Kylington has now become a champion for people of all walks with similar scars.

On the ice, or off – where arguably his most admirable quality is representing the greater good for a sport in need of role models.

“It's so important,” Lanny said of having individuals like this representing the Flames. “The pressure every day to perform at that level is incredible and for him to be able to make that comeback and be able to perform at the highest of high levels, it speaks volumes not only for him, but it shows the way for so many people that may be going through similar challenges, regardless of what part of the workforce you're in.

“I couldn't be happier for him or for him being that great example to everyone else out there in the world.”