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The Summer of Barzal

The two highlights of Mat Barzal's summer couldn't have been further apart, but appealed to both sides of the Isles forward.

by Cory Wright WrightsWay / New York Islanders

The two highlights of Mathew Barzal's summer couldn't be more opposite. 

The first was the NHL Awards, where Barzal capped a magnificent rookie season with the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. There he was, taking pictures with a trophy that takes two hands to hold in the ballroom of the Hard Rock Hotel, about 10 minutes away from of the Las Vegas Strip, with its neon lights, red carpets and constant, frantic energy.

What's not to love for a 21-year-old rookie of the year, who brought his family - and teammate Anthony Beauvillier - to help him celebrate. Recognition and adoration by the hockey community and a few days by the pool. 

"It was just so cool," Barzal said. "It's cool to be at the same event as some of the best players in the game and really humbling to see all these guys and how professional and mature they are. It was the best week of my summer."

Video: Summer Series: Mathew Barzal

So it's an interesting dichotomy when Barzal talks about his other favorite part of the summer: spending a few days off the grid as a guest coach at Ethan Bear's (Edmonton Oilers defenseman) Hockey Skills Camp in Ochapowace Nation. 

Ochapowace couldn't be more different from Las Vegas. It's a First Nations reserve in southeastern Saskatchewan, east of Regina and close to the Manitoba border. It's a small community on a beautiful and vast landscape featuring a school, a shop that the Bear family owns, a medical center, a rink and only one stop sign. 

"There's not a lot of people there. It's quiet which is the best part," Barzal said. "We got to just relax. It's so peaceful there. It's a different life out there, but I loved it for a couple of days."

Barzal was on hand as a guest coach at Bear's camp, a hockey camp for 115 First Nations children at Ochapowace Nation. Bear was raised on the Ochapowace Nation and the camp attracts young hockey players from across Canada. 

Barzal and Bear know each other from junior as they were teammates for four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Seven other former Thunderbirds were guest coaches at the camp, including Bridgeport Sound Tigers forward Scott Eansor. 

"I was in a tracksuit out there running drills and the dryland training off the ice," Barzal said. "Just roving around, making sure the kids were having fun, telling some jokes."

Barzal was touched by the level of enthusiasm the kids had for the game, for Bear - who is an idol to the indigenous youth players - and for the pro hockey players taking time to visit their slice of the world. 

"It's so humbling seeing these kids, they don't come from a lot, but they come out and work hard and have fun," Barzal said. "They're smiling and laughing the whole time and pushing each other out there and battling. It's fun, it was just a great experience and really humbling just to see that kind of culture for the week and live on the reserve for a while." 

Barzal and the guest coaches all stayed in the Bear home during their week at the camp and took part in the culture on the reserve. Last year they brought the Ed Chynoweth Cup - WHL Championship - with them and were presented with homemade navy, green and white blankets - the Thunderbirds team colors. 

"They were so happy to have role models like Ethan and Barzal there to teach them," Eansor said. "Not many times do people from those areas get to meet a person like Barzal. It's a long way away from a lot of places and they appreciated having us." 

Year 2!! Another unreal camp in Ochapowace for @ebear25 hockey camp

A post shared by Mat Barzal (@barzal97) on

After all the demands on Barzal's time this summer, from Adidas and CCM shoots, to the NHL Awards, to rigorous offseason training, it's understandable that he'd seek some time away. That's part of the reason he chose to meet the Islanders digital team near Kelowna, BC, on the shores of Lake Okanagan, rather than his family home in the Vancouver suburbs. 

"I just like the pace, it's pretty quiet and not too much going on," said Barzal, who used to come up to the Okanagan every summer to his father's hometown of Osoyoos. "It's a little different than Vancouver and New York." 

Barzal spends his downtime at a friend's cottage, but these are no ordinary friends. The cottage belongs to the family of Nashville Predators 2016 first-round pick Dante Fabbro and Colorado Avalanche forward Tyson Jost is also crashing for the week. 

The cottage is in a smaller community between Kelowna and Penticton and has lake access, so after training in the mornings, Barzal can lounge on the dock, take the jet skis out and relax. It's another low-key highlight of the summer and a chance to catch up with old friends, as he and Fabbro have known each other since they were kids at Burnaby Winter Club. The three friends also played together for Team Canada at the World Juniors. 

"We all want to get better and have long NHL careers, so I think that goes a long way with our friendship and is a reason we all hang out in the summer," Barzal said.

Barzal, Fabbro and Jost meet at Rutland Arena in Kelowna on a Monday morning in late July for an on-ice session. There are a lot of NHLers who spend their summers in Kelowna - including Andrew Ladd - and on this day they're joined by New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson, Calgary forward Curtis Lazar and Dallas Stars forward - and former Islander - Blake Comeau. 

The only two non-NHL players are the two goalies, who are either two of the luckiest or unluckiest guys in Kelowna depending on your view of being scored on by the reigning Calder winner. 

A trainer is leading them through drills, with edge work and skating being the main focus for the first part of the session. Barzal is able to twist and spin himself around on one skate and makes complicated drills look effortless, but his skating is one of his strongest attributes. 

A few people gather at the glass to watch the NHLers skate. Two strike up a conversation. 

"I'm surprised Barzal doesn't have a C on his chest," one says. 

The reply: "He will one day."

Tweet from @NYIslanders: "It's not going to get easier. I want to be as prepared as possible." #WorkoutWednesday @Barzal_97 pic.twitter.com/R8Sq0Vmlsd

It's a small anecdote, but there is a sense of raised expectations on Barzal this season, especially with the departure of John Tavares. Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello weighed in on this in a comment to NHL.com.

"I don't think outside pressure puts anything on this young man," Lamoriello told NHL.com. "I think that he's comfortable in his own skin, and whatever pressure, he will put on himself. It's not whether it's the gain of a player, the addition or a subtraction. I don't think that will affect him whatsoever."

Barzal is self-aware and despite scoring 85 points last season, he knows next season will be harder, as teams continue to key in on him with top defensive matchups every night. That's why he's taking his offseason training seriously, even dropping into the Okanagan Hockey Academy for a rigorous Saturday workout alone. 

"It's not going to get easier, it's going to get harder," Barzal said. "I can't come in and take anything for granted or come in thinking it'll be easy… I want to be as prepared as possible, skating a lot, working out hard and trying to be prepared." 

Off the ice, Barzal's focus has been on maintaining his speed, so he does a lot of explosive lower body workouts, as well as holds and endurance exercises. He wants to get stronger, win more battles and be able to hold guys off with his body. He also wants to develop other facets of his game, in addition to being a premier skater and playmaker. 

"My role is pretty much the same, working hard and try to help score," Barzal said. "I would love to work on my d-zone, making sure I'm on top of that and be a plus player."

The summer is winding down and Barzal is ready to get things going again with the Islanders. It's been a long summer of training, appearances and time at home and he's looking forward to playing in front of the fans, getting back in the locker room and confesses he even misses getting chirped by older players.  

"I'm starting to get a little antsy now. I want to get down there and skate with the guys again, joke around and hear Clutter chirp me so I'm excited," Barzal said. "For the fans to be excited, we want to go out there this year, get some wins on the board and make it entertaining for them too."

He's had his time in the sun and his time to reflect. Now it's time to get back on the ice. 

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