WINDSOR, Ont. - Jesse Blacker stood smartly dressed in grey suit in the basement of the WFCU Centre, a place he had called home for parts of three seasons. As the Owen Sound Attack defenceman was answering questions from reporters, his teammates were packing the bus for the trip back home. And as the Toronto native was talking about his team’s 3-2 victory over the Windsor Spitfires, one of his teammates piped up while shoving his hockey bag into the hull of the coach.
“Boooo! Boooo!” he yelled, taunting at his teammate.
Blacker smiled. He had heard the loud jeers every time he touched the puck, a reaction from Spitfires fans angry with him for being involved in an altercation with Windsor forward Zack Kassian during Game 3 of the series.
The fact that the Attack victory on Monday night put the two-time defending OHL and MasterCard Memorial Cup-champion Spitfires on the ropes down 3-1 in their Western Conference final didn’t help either. In the second period the partisan crowd of 6,046 – started a chant of “Blacker. Blacker. You suck!”
“I was public enemy No.1 tonight I guess,” said Blacker after the game. “I guess it means I’m doing something right, I have to look at it that way… but that’s why they were such great fans when I played here. I don’t take it personally at all. That’s why they’re great fans, all the power to them.”
Kassian sat out the game while awaiting his fate after receiving a match penalty for intent to injure after allegedly slashing Blacker in the back of the legs and then hitting him from behind while on the ice in the dying seconds of Game 3. The OHL is expected to rule on the length of suspension on Tuesday, though the only official account available is that of the referee since, according to sources, there is no video evidence of the altercation.
Not surprisingly, both players have differing versions of the events.
“I gave him a little slash in the back of the legs and he embellished it,” said Kassian. “He embellished it obviously because he’s playing right now, he’s skating around fine. It got blown out of proportion with my history and all that stuff, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”
Blacker said what Kassian failed to mention is that after he was knocked down on the ice, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound winger started to whack at him from behind.
“I felt cross-checks raining down on my head and ribs and it didn’t exactly feel good,” said the second-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “The fans saw it. I can’t say I embellished it, I’m not the kind of player to dive.”
Kassian was forced to watch Game 4 from an auxiliary press area Monday and as a repeat offender, there’s a good chance the 20-year-old might have already played in his last game in a Spitfires uniform.
“I haven’t thought about it being my last game,” said Kassian. “I’m just sitting and waiting for the final decision to come tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. Obviously I’m antsy and I want to hear what it is, but right now I’m just focusing on our team.”
Kassian is no stranger to sitting in the stands thanks to various suspensions throughout his career. The last time he sat out was as a forward with Team Canada during the world junior championship in January when he missed a game after leveling Czech defenceman Petr Senkerik with a vicious centre-ice check. He is also a well-known repeat offender in the OHL; last season Kassian was handed a lengthy 20-game suspension for flattening Barrie Colts forward Matt Kennedy with an open-ice hit that was similar to the one he put on Senkerik. Kennedy suffered a concussion and required stitches.
“Buffalo drafted me to be that hard-nosed player that finishes checks and plays with that edge,” said the LaSalle, Ont., native. “I’m not going to lie, a couple of times in my junior career I went over that edge and I’ll be the first one to admit that. I think I’ve learned a lot over the years in the OHL.”
And despite the fact that he’s been forced to watching his team play, while he’s sitting out on a number of occasions – he’s still not used to being reduced to the role of observer.
“It definitely doesn’t (get easier),” said the Sabres prospect. “When you’re in the playoffs in the Western Conference final, it’s pretty huge because no one expected us to get this far. It just shows how tight this team is, Everyone believes in each other and to not be out there right now helping them fight for our (playoff) lives right now is not fun.”
The Spitfires could have used Kassian in their lineup on Monday, particularly when they were pressing to tie the game on a power play with minutes left on the clock. Kassian’s size and strength would have made him the perfect obstacle to place in front of Attack goalie Scott Stacjer ,who finished the game with 28 saves.
“Obviously we don’t have anybody on our bench that can replace Kassian,” said Windsor head coach Bob Jones. “We were trying to do it by committee; obviously it was hard because we had to mingle all our lines a little bit but that’s no excuse. We still had 20 guys dressed, we just couldn’t get the game we needed tonight from our guys.”
Windsor netminder Jack Campbell showed his world junior form – where he was twice named goaltender of the tournament while backstopping Team USA – stopping 41 of 44 Attack shots. The Dallas Stars prospect came up with a number of acrobatic saves at critical times while the game was tied through most of the second period.
"I thought Owen Sound carried the play for much of the game, but Jack Campbell was outstanding and kept us in the game," said Jones. "The score probably shouldn't have been as close as it was."
Game 5 of the series is scheduled for Owen Sound on Wednesday and if he’s allowed to play, Kassian said he’s not expecting anything in his game to change. And even after all the games he’s lost to suspensions over the course of his four-year OHL career, you wonder whether Kassian has indeed learned how to balance the fine line between fair and foul.
“If I’m back I’m not going to change one thing,” said Kassian. “If anything it’ll make me hit (Blacker) a little harder next time.”