Character, heart, coachability are a few of the qualities NHL clubs covet when evaluating draft prospects - and Curtis Lazar is certainly a player who offers a host of intangibles that don't necessarily show up on the scoresheet.
He brings the type of complete game that often translates into playoff success - which is a distinct possibility as his Edmonton Oil Kings (27-9-5) appear well-set to take a serious run at a Memorial Cup crown this spring.
McKeen’s: Where did you play your minor hockey?
Lazar: I grew up in Salmon Arm, B.C., before my family moved to Vernon, where I played my pee wee hockey. My bantam year, I enrolled in the 'Pursuit of Excellence' program out of Kelowna, and then finishing up with midget hockey at Okanagan Academy.
McKeen’s: What was the biggest difference or adjustment you had to make in your game coming from midget hockey to major junior?
Lazar: Just really learning and listening to the coaching staff. It is a big leap from midget to major junior and of course you want to get better at every aspect of the game.
McKeen’s: You have played on the WHL all-star team in the Subway series versus the Russians. Aside from this, how much prior international experience have you had, and how much have you learned from the competition?
Lazar: I’ve been fortunate already to have played in previous World under-17 and under-18 tournaments. Any chance you get to play with the best players in Canada, and against the best players in the world in your age group, it only helps sharpen your skills. You develop a lot of friends along the way. You learn from the positives, and the mistakes, so it has helped me develop.
McKeen’s: Heading into this season did you set any personal or team goals that you wanted to achieve?
Lazar: As a team goal, it’s very simple, we want to get back where we were last season, and that was winning the WHL Championship, and then heading off to the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon in May. For myself, I just want to improve and do the little things right. We are the hunted team this year, it’s tough to repeat, so every team is trying to knock us off.
McKeen’s: How much did you learn last year in your first year in the WHL, and how much has that helped you prepare for this season?
Lazar: It was huge, I mean I got 10 games under my belt when I was 15, and then last year I was brought along slowly, everything was a learning curve, you have to learn what you can and can’t do. I really picked it up last season in our play-off run, and it’s been great.
McKeen’s: Does it bother you that there are so many scouts analysing you, game after game, all season long?
Lazar: Not really, the way I’m going to deal with the draft, is that I’m not going to think about it or let it bother me. I’m just focused on helping the Edmonton Oil Kings get two points each night. So I guess I’m not really thinking about it. It’s like playing in games like the one versus the Russians, where I can go out and have fun and play my game against top-calibre competition.
McKeen’s: You’re a talented offensive player, how important is learning to play defense, especially if you want to advance to the NHL level, and to be a more complete player?
Lazar: It’s huge, and that’s why I’m learning, and taking pride in playing a better defensive game. It’s important to look after the defensive zone first, before transitioning without the puck. You can’t take any short cuts, it’s a lot of hard work, and paying attention to detail in practice. Winning the battles in the corner, blocking shots, and getting the proper defensive position on opposing players. The coaching staff have definitely stressed how important it is to play a good two-way game.
McKeen’s: You are being considered a top prospect for this year’s draft. How do you feel about that?
Lazar: It’s an honour just to be mentioned up there with all the other top players. I’m humbled, and think it’s great that I’m being considered with the best junior players in the world. I’m just going to keep having fun and working hard playing the game I love.
McKeen’s: How did your off-ice training go - and how much importance do you put in gaining weight and strength in the core parts of your body, in order for you to compete and win puck battles against bigger players?
Lazar: It’s huge, I mean I’m not really the biggest guy lining up out there. As teenagers, most of us at this level are still growing, so weight training, eating the right food, and nutrition are all part of the maintenance. We pay special attention with extra weight training sessions for areas of potential injury like the shoulder, hips and arms.
McKeen’s: Who has had the greatest impact on your hockey career to date?
Lazar: There is many people, but at the top, I will start with my parents, they are the ones that have driven me to practice and games. Certainly, coaches, so many to mention, have all helped me get to where I am today.
McKeen’s: Was there anybody you watched as a kid in the NHL, that you wanted to pattern or emulate your game after?
Lazar: Oh, that’s easy, it was Joe Sakic first with the Quebec Nordiques, and then after with the Colorado Avalanche. It was great to see him go into the Hall of Fame. I mean, he’s another BC guy, he had a real good wrist shot that I’m trying to develop and emulate in my repertoire. I wish I could shoot as good as him. But also how classy a guy he was on and off the ice.
McKeen’s: What in your opinion is the strongest part of your game, and what do you want to work on this season?
Lazar: I mean myself, I like to play a simple game, nothing fancy. I’m not afraid to engage in a physical game. I think my speed is my biggest asset, I also like to drive to the net and battle there. I want to improve on my face-offs and playmaking ability.
McKeen’s: Your club, the Edmonton Oil Kings, have a very exciting team. What is it like playing for them and coach Derek Laxdal?
Lazar: It’s very exciting, the core of our team is back this season and we feel we have a chance to win every night. It’s a classy organization, if you need anything, they will take care of it. I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.
McKeen’s: What is your greatest hockey moment to date?
Lazar: There’s a couple, I mean, just winning the gold medal at the Canada Winter games is a highlight. I will say last season`s WHL Championship and participation in last season`s Memorial Cup was big.
McKeen's: What do you like to do in the off-season?
Lazar: Just training really, besides front-loading my school courses so I can graduate early. Hanging out with my friends at the lake in Vernon, and of course fishing. Spending time with family is also high on the list, as the season is very taxing, and it's hard to see them.