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IN DEPTH: Gazdic's Journey

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 25: Luke Gazdic #20 of the Edmonton Oilers skates on the ice in a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 25, 2014 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

EDMONTON, AB - Stepping off the ice following practice, a sweat-covered Luke Gazdic could glance up to the red seats at the Cox Convention Center and feel at home. The familiar surroundings in Oklahoma City, OK have become a frequent stop for the 25-year-old winger in his young professional career.

“It seems like good things have happened in this building,” Gazdic said.

The forward spent four seasons in the American Hockey League with the Dallas Stars organization. Their affiliate, the Texas Stars, are a rival of the Oilers farm team in Oklahoma City.

“Four years here, six to eight times per year,” Gazdic said. “I’ve spent my fair share of time on this ice. I played here in the playoffs too in 2012 and we lost in five games. I’ve been here a lot, I’ve battled with these guys. They’ve had tough teams over the years and I’ve had a ton of fights against them.”

Gazdic wasn’t back in Oklahoma City earlier this month to reminisce. The Oilers forward was there on a two-week conditioning stint with the Barons, rebuilding the strength in his surgically-repaired shoulder.

It was a surreal thing for Gazdic to return in OKC. That city and that rink were a stop on the journey that eventually brought him to the Oilers organization.

EARLY ASPIRATIONS

Gazdic was born and raised in Toronto. As a young kid growing up in Maple Leafs country, his allegiances were never in question.

“I was a big-time Leafs fan,” Gazdic confessed. “I’m not even shy to admit that. Even when I started playing my pro career, I still followed them. I went to school right in inner-city Toronto, right in the middle of the city and at an all-boys school too. I grew up with a lot of testosterone and it was kind of hard to grow up in Toronto and not be a Leafs fan to be honest.”

Being such a big hockey fan, Gazdic wanted to achieve every kid’s dream -- playing in the NHL.

“I think I always had that plan in the back of my mind,” he said. “To be honest, the older I grew, the more I realized how hard it was for me to get there. I thought I had more of a shot when I was younger, but then you get into the pro game and you realize you’ve still got some work to do.”

That work would begin with Gazdic finding his path to the NHL. He’d put that “testosterone” to use soon enough.

LONDON, ON - MARCH 21: Leigh Salters #55 of the London Knights collides with Luke Gazdic #23 of the Erie Otters in game 2 of the 2009 play-off opening round on March 21, 2009 at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario. The Knights defeated the Otters 8-1 to take a 2-0 series lead. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

BECOMING A FIGHTER

Gazdic recalls his first fight like it was yesterday.

“I was 16-years-old,” said Gazdic, who was playing for the Wexford Raiders of the OPJHL at the time.

“I loved it. I wasn’t an extremely tough player back then. I was hard-nosed, I finished my checks but I never fought too much. It was fun and I kind of took off from there.”

Once he realized he could match up with kids his own age, Gazdic gained confidence and began to fight more often when the occasion called for it.

His family would get used to it in the end.

“I think they didn’t mind it because it was something that just kind of happened,” he said. “I think my mom started to get a little uneasy once I started to do it a little more. They’ve gotten used to it though.”

But in Gazdic’s second year in the OHL (2007-08), he began to realize that he needed to be more than your standard enforcer to make it to the NHL.

Robbie Ftorek took over for Erie Otters Head Coach Peter Sidorkiewicz after a 3-12-0-0 start that season. Ftorek’s attention to detail and foresight inspired Gazdic.

“He coached for the (New Jersey) Devils and was an NHL coach for a number of years,” Gazdic said. “I learned a lot from him about my game. He knew how tough I was and that I could make it to the next level just by fighting. He kind of saw ahead of the curve, knowing that fighting was coming down. He helped me well-round my game into a more all-around player.”

Ftorek’s first full season as Erie’s head coach in 2008-09 brought Gazdic’s best production in junior. He cut back on his penalty minutes, and scored 30 points in 63 games.

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

A SHINING STAR

In 2007, the Dallas Stars made Gazdic their selection in the sixth round (172nd overall).

Gazdic was in shock when he received the news.

“Unexpected, to be honest,” he said of the moment. “Dallas was the only team I had talked to. I talked to them four days before the draft and I remember sitting at a buddy’s house on the Saturday and I wasn’t even watching the draft. I honestly was not expecting to (be drafted) at all and then I got a call that they had drafted me. It was pure excitement, pure joy. It was more fun to be around my family that night, my parents were pretty ecstatic so it was a fun time.”

Two years following that draft, Gazdic made his professional debut. With six ECHL games sprinkled in, Gazdic logged 256 regular season games with the AHL Stars over four years.

He scored 55 points for Texas and logged over 440 penalty minutes. He unofficially fought over 60 times in the regular season during his time with Texas. It was a major adjustment, but one he had to make to advance his career.

“I don’t want to say you’re fighting kids in junior, but you are,” Gazdic explained. “You’re fighting guys your own age and even the toughest guys in junior are still your age or younger. You get to pro and I was fighting guys who had been doing it for 10 years and they were just men. It’s a big adjustment from junior. You practice in the morning and then you have a lot of free time during the days and the weeks. It’s just a big adjustment coming from junior, not having a billet there, cooking for yourself and everything. Life changes, but for the better though. It was the right step.”

Gazdic hoped he was showing enough to the big club to earn a call up. That call never came with Dallas, but an opportunity would soon present itself and he’d be NHL bound with another club.

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

AN OPPORTUNITY

Gazdic was close, and he knew it.

“I honestly was,” he said. “I had a pretty strong camp at Dallas. I was practicing well, I was playing well and I thought I was there. I felt like it was my time. There were a few open spots at forward. I just thought I was the right age and did enough in the minors to prove to them, and ever since I was drafted at 17 I thought I had done enough to prove to them that I was ready for it.”

The 2013-14 season was going to be the one for Gazdic. He had been waiting to make his debut with Dallas for years and he felt like it was now time.

The Stars played a pre-season game in Oklahoma City against the Oilers on September 27, 2013. Gazdic was hoping to showcase his talents to the Stars brass in the final pre-season tuneup and finally make the roster. Little did he know, the Oilers would be watching closely as well.

Edmonton had an enforcer in Steve MacIntyre at the time. In fact, it appeared as though Gazdic tried to scrap with the long-time hockey pugilist. That bout never took place and MacIntyre injured his knee that very game.

Gazdic finished the night, scoring a goal in the process.

“When I came in with Dallas, it was nice for me to be in a spot I’ve played in before and a building I knew,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good game, I played physical, scored a goal and the rest is history for me in Edmonton.”

His performance was not enough to sway the Stars and they placed Gazdic on waivers.

“I was extremely disappointed when they sent me on waivers, but when one door closes another one opens,” Gazdic said. “I began my career as an Oiler.”

NHL AT LAST

With MacIntyre on the mend, the Oilers had a hole to fill. Protecting their young and developing stars was an issue for the team.

The Oilers claimed Gazdic off waivers, bringing him to their organization.

“It was another unexpected kind of thing,” Gazdic said. “I had talked to a couple of different people and I didn’t think that there was too good of a chance right there. (Craig MacTavish) called me under 24 hours later and it was just excitement. I remember when I hung up the phone, the first person I called was my dad. They were sitting there on a Sunday morning, I told them and they were just as ecstatic as well. It was nice to get that call.”

Luke Gazdic celebrates his first NHL goal. Photo by Getty Images.

MacTavish and the Oilers wanted the newly acquired Gazdic to do what he’d done well so far in his career.

“They wanted me to play my game,” he said. “They needed a toughness factor in here with a lot of younger, skilled players. For a couple of years past, there have been some liberties taken on those players. Obviously, that’s my job first and foremost but the days of the two, three shift enforcer are extinct. You don’t have to be a genius to see that. They just told me to be a good, well-rounded forward, get in on the forecheck and fight when I have to.”

The truth is, it was thanks to Oklahoma City’s coaching staff that Gazdic was on the Oilers radar in the first place.

“To be honest, (the Oilers) didn’t know a lot about me as a player,” Gazdic said. “It was more on recommendations they had gotten from the minor league staff and from playing against Oklahoma City for four years. I actually met (Barons Head Coach) Todd Nelson for the first time at training camp this year. I thanked him for the kind words he had said about me. I caused a lot of havoc for that team down there in four years. He said some nice things about me.”

Gazdic’s first NHL game was on home ice at Rexall Place against the Winnipeg Jets on October 1, 2013.

He scored his first NHL goal on a steep-angle backhand shot. It was a moment he’ll never forget.

“Disbelief,” Gazdic said. “I didn’t even think I had scored the goal. You could see me put my arms up but I kept looking back at the net, almost as if to be waiting for the ref to wave it off. I just didn’t think it happened like that. I didn’t think it would happen like that. CBC got a shot too and I watched the video 100 times and it still gives me chills. CBC showed me on the bench after and they asked me why I’m not smiling or doing anything. I was soaking it in and it was just pure elation. My mom was in the stands, my brother was there and it was Hockey Night in Canada, the first game of the season and almost everyone back home was watching. I don’t think my phone stopped ringing for a week straight so it was definitely a good time.”

Gazdic played 67 games for the Oilers last season. He racked up 127 penalty minutes, quickly becoming a feared fighter in NHL circles. So much so that when Gazdic went to Oklahoma City for his conditioning stint, he noticed the younger players in the minors wanting to test themselves against him. That’s what happens when you’ve shown well against seasoned fighters like Brian McGrattan, Milan Lucic, Patrick Bordeleau and Shawn Thornton.

“I know where they’re coming from,” Gazdic said. “I was a 20-year-old kid in this league at one point. I ran my mouth a lot, I was trying to make a name for myself the first two years. Over a four-year span in this league, over 250 games or whatever I played, I did a pretty good job of it. I look back on it now and thinking of some the stuff I did when I was younger, getting under other guys’ skin. It’s just stuff that’s going to happen to me now that I’m 25, going on 26-years-old here. There are going to be guys trying to make a name for themselves every year.”

Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons

ROUNDING OUT HIS GAME

The days of an NHL team carrying players with the sole purpose of fighting are all but done. Fighting is still a part of the game, but on a much smaller scale. Enforcers need to be able to play some minutes to go along with their physical assets.

Gazdic knows this. He saw it coming back in junior with the Otters. That’s why he is on a mission to develop his game.

“I know I can fight in this league, I can fight anyone in this league,” Gazdic said. “My skills and my defensive game. If I’m going to be in a fourth-line role then I’ve got to be able to play in the defensive zone and kill penalties. I’d love to be on the PK in the next couple of years. Just staying here and being an everyday lineup kind of guy. I want to be a force in the lineup every night.”

Gazdic has returned from his conditioning stint. In his time in Oklahoma City, he played five games and scored two goals. He tested his shoulder in a fight as well.

The shoulder held up, and he is in Edmonton now awaiting his opportunity to play again.

“We’re playing well and that fourth line has been going for us,” Gazdic said. “They’ve been effective all year, consistent all year since even the pre-season. I’m going to have to just be patient here and do as much as I can just to get back in the lineup. You don’t want to see injuries but we’ve got a whole, healthy lineup which is good for us. We’re playing well and that’s where we want to be. I’m on the outside looking in for the time being but I’m going to do everything I can to get back in there.”

As long as the Oilers stay healthy and the fourth line plays well, Gazdic is on the outside looking in. But if he sticks to the mission that began in junior, rounding out his game, he could be back on the ice in an Oilers jersey soon enough.

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