The “Taxi Squad” is a new designation as this abbreviated National Hockey League season begins. Each NHL club will have up to a half dozen players on hand to fill lineup voids created by injury or illness.
At least three former Waterloo Black Hawks have already been given Taxi Squad assignments. That designation puts both Shane Bowers in Colorado and Dylan Samberg in Winnipeg on the cusp of their NHL debuts.
Meanwhile, Patrick Russell has already skated in regular season contests for the Edmonton Oilers. Although being on the team’s Taxi Squad makes him unlikely to be in the lineup as the 56-game schedule opens tonight, Russell is otherwise right where he wants to be since signing his first Oilers contract in 2016.
“The organization has taken great care of me. They’ve obviously shown that they believe in me; they know what kind of player I am,” Russell said recently, adding, “I think personally I’ve taken steps every year to prove that I can play in this league, so it’s a partnership [with Edmonton] that goes hand-in-hand. I didn’t want to play anywhere else this season, that’s for sure.”
Following two full seasons with the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, Russell’s first chance in to skate in Alberta was during an Edmonton-Calgary rivalry game in November of 2018. He appeared in five more games that year, plus another 45 last winter. As an NHL’er, Russell has recorded five assists.
“You always more…you want to keep taking a step and try to play more games in the NHL, but it’s a tough year. We’re going to need a lot of guys. We have 17 games in 30 days to start out the season, so it’s going to be a lot of rotation, and whatever happens, you’ve just got to be ready. When you’re called upon you’ve got to show up and perform.”
The Black Hawks were Russell’s first North American stop on his way to the NHL. In 2013/14, Russell shined for Waterloo, leading the team and ranking fifth in the USHL with 29 goals, included ten power play scores and four game-winners. The Hawks claimed the Anderson Cup, earning a league-high 93 standings points, a team record. Russell advanced from Waterloo to St. Cloud State University. During two seasons with the Huskies, he recorded 63 points in 78 appearances and was a point-per-game player (38 points in 38 games) as a sophomore. In addition to his time in junior, college, and professional hockey, the native of Denmark has also had opportunities with his country’s national team.
Yet getting home to Denmark during the recent offseason was challenging in a year of international travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. After flying across the Atlantic, Russell had to quarantine for a week.
“At that point, when we got home, I hadn’t seen my family in over a year I think, so it was really nice being home to spend a little bit of time to see friends and family,” Russell says.
His return to Edmonton in late 2020 meant another 14 days isolating after the trip.
In addition to Russell, most of the world’s best hockey players have made their way to central Alberta in the last six months. Edmonton hosted most of the Stanley Cup playoffs during August and September, then the IIHF World Junior Championships, which ended earlier this month.
“I think the City of Edmonton and the NHL did a great job,” Russell says of the long-delayed postseason. As for the World Junior Tournament (Russell had previous experience representing Denmark in that event when he was under 20): “It was exciting to have some hockey back on TV…I watched a lot of games and it was some really good hockey with some great young players in that tournament.”
For the moment, Russell will likely still remain a spectator on game days while he is on the Oilers Taxi Squad. However, he will still be involved in club activities, including practices. That will routinely put him on the ice with some of hockey’s most exciting players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“Watching [McDavid] every day, you’re amazed at the small things he does, day-in and day-out. He’s probably the first guy on the ice. You just watch and try to learn, even though it’s pretty much impossible, because he just has what no one else really has,” Russell notes.
When it comes to game situations on the ice with the Edmonton stars, Russell’s objective is basic: “Give them the puck. It’s pretty simple, just give them the puck and try to be a presence in front of the net; stay out of the way and hopefully you can scramble some pucks in there.”
Due to challenges crossing the U.S./Canada border, Edmonton and the NHL’s other six Canadian teams will spend this winter playing in one division stretching from Montreal to Vancouver. That may mean some long trips, but Russell anticipates that fans will embrace the short-term situation.
“It will create a lot of rivalries. We already have a great one with Calgary, obviously. I think we’re going to play them ten times this year, so it’s a lot of the same teams, there’s going to be a lot of emotion out there, especially when you play back-to-back and meet the same players the night after, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a lot of battles and a lot of emotion out there.”
The first of those battles for the Oilers is tonight against the Vancouver Canucks. The puck drops at 9 p.m. Central Time.
Where Are They Now features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite at 2515 Falls Avenue in Waterloo. Photo Credit: ANDY DEVLIN - OILERS ENTERTAINMENT GROUP. Used with permission.