When he touches the puck there’s a buzz in the crowd -- an electricity that something very special might be upcoming.
But what comes next is still anyone’s guess.
With Edmonton Oilers forward Ales Hemsky, it can be one of those pull-you-out-of-your-seat moves that are mesmerizing to watch -- or one of those now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moments. The question is: When will the next glimpse of greatness appear?
Of late, they seem to be happening more and more frequently -- once a game, sometimes more. Like a game against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 25 in which Hemsky dazzled his way to a two goals, then scored the only goal in a shootout to give the Oilers a 5-4 victory that left Edmonton fans wanting more.
After seeing some clips of that game, former Oilers star Ryan Smyth, now with Colorado, just shook his head in appreciation from afar at his former teammate. The two played together during Hemsky’s first four NHL seasons.
"He reminds me of (Colorado’s) Milan Hejduk," Smyth said of the former 50-goal scorer. "And he shoots it like Jari Kurri, though he doesn't shoot as much as Jari did."
| Larry Wigge has covered the NHL since 1969. The longtime NHL columnist for The Sporting News, Wigge is now an NHL.com columnist and a frequent contributor to the website. |
Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe will never forget the 2001 Entry Draft, when the Oilers made Ales Hemsky
their first-round pick, 13th overall.
Lowe, who usually sees most of the players the Oilers pick, kept hearing his scouts talk about this kid Hemsky. Always a student of the game as an All-Star defenseman, Kevin asked his scouts to give him a player comparison he could visualize in his mind.
The comparisons were varied — until he heard two names.
"I remember asking the scouts if he was as fast as Todd Marchant (former Oilers speedster and a barometer for skating skill)," Lowe recalled. "They said yes, that he had better lateral speed. I thought, ‘Wow!’
"Then (Oilers Director of Hockey Operations) Kevin Prendergast said he thought Ales could be compared to a young Patrik Elias. One of the other scouts said he had discussed the kid with Charlie Henry (the GM of Hemsky’s Hull Olympiques team) and Charlie told me; ‘His vision is outstanding. He’s one of those players who is not going to let go of the puck until he can make a play. ... He’s got some of that Jari Kurri flair.’”
Patrik Elias? OK, but Jari Kurri?
"That did it," said Lowe. "Hearing someone compare the kid to Jari Kurri, well, I can definitely visualize that talent. And I’m not about to pass up that kind of skill."
Lowe also learned that Hemsky’s talent was home-taught, that his dad, Petr, coached the Pardubice team in the Czech Elite League — and helped put his son on his way to the NHL by also running a couple of photo shops back home.
And that Milan Hejduk comparison by Ryan Smyth? It turns out that Hemsky adored Hejduk’s play as a kid and still trains with the Colorado star each summer. -- Larry Wigge
Fellow Oiler Shawn Horcoff admits he’s gotten caught watching his elusive teammate. "I think he faked me out as much as he did (Minnesota defenseman) Kim Johnsson. I’m standing up watching this on the bench, yelling ‘Shoot! Shoot!’” Hemsky has been shooting the puck more of late; he scored four goals in a five-game span. For the season, Hemsky has scored five goals and seven assists in 17 games.
With Smyth now in Colorado, the 24-year-old native of Pardubice in the Czech Republic wants to be the face of the Oilers. He knows he’s the team’s most skilled player; now he wants to be more than that.
"I want to be a leader," said Hemsky, who until recently was quiet and almost introverted. "I’m no captain. I'm not the guy who will talk in the room like (former Oilers captain) Jason Smith used to. But I want the team to count on me. I want to make a difference ..."
There’s a pause after that part of his answer, while Hemsky tries to figure out how he will step up to the next level. Then, he continues, saying, "I can only show how much I want to be a leader on the ice. That’s why I’m here, right?"
At a time when European stars like Jaromir Jagr, Mats Sundin, Saku Koivu, Nicklas Lidstrom and Daniel Alfredsson are NHL captains, all Hemsky wants is to magically lead the Oilers back to the days of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and Company.
But for all of Hemsky’s offensive skills, he’s never scored 20 goals or topped 77 points in his four NHL seasons. That’s not exactly Gretzky-esque, even in a lower-offense era.
"We don’t need a highlight goal every time he steps on the ice," said coach Craig MacTavish. "What we do need is to have Ales to be at the All-Star Game, to become a star. I know that’s on his mind.
"It's tough to have real good team success unless you have somebody in the top-20 in scoring. We need him to jump up into that category."
Oilers fans are still trying to deal with the realization that the days of Gretzky, Kurri and the rest are gone. But with young players like Hemsky and skilled rookies such as Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, there’s the beginning of that same very skilled and talented look on the Oilers roster.
Late last season, with the prospects of having three first-round picks in the 2007 Entry Draft, Oilers General Manager Kevin Lowe commented on what he had to build on — and started with Hemsky’s skill level. "Ales is probably the most talented player we've had in the organization in the past 10 years,” Lowe said. “And because we've witnessed it enough times with our own eyes, we know the potential is there for something wonderful to happen."
Watching Hemsky is sort of like riding a roller coaster. There’s that wave of enthusiasm when you lift your arms in the air. For an opposing defenseman, it’s probably like waking up in the middle of that ride and seeing him throw a couple moves, a couple of head-fakes that scare the devil out of you.
Everything seems so easy, so natural for Hemsky the way he skates and dangles with the puck, looking for a shot or a pass. One-on-one, he relishes the opportunity to beat any opponent.
"From the time I played back in Czech to my days in junior hockey at Hull, I remember a lot of people saying; ‘'You're going to be a star,' " Hemsky said during the Oilers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. "I want to get to the point where they are saying; 'You are a star.’”
That’s the challenge that seems to be driving the 6-foot, 192-pound curly-haired virtuoso with those incomprehensible improvisational skills.
"You can see he's going to be hungry to get to that next level ... a dominant player," MacTavish said.
Bottom line: Those invisible moments, where Hemsky would disappear for a few games, don’t seem to be happening much any more.