Following a three-year stint in the Ontario Junior Hockey League with the Burlington Cougars, Bieksa had the choice of attending Bowling Green State University of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association or playing for the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors of the Ontario Hockey League.
"It was going to be Mississauga's inaugural season and I was drafted by them in the later rounds, but went to their camp nonetheless," Bieksa told NHL.com. "It was a tough decision because of all the hoopla going on, with Don Cherry taking over the franchise. I was a big fan of his and it was something I really wanted to be a part of. I made the team and had a sit-down with my dad to really go over my options."
As it turns out, spending four seasons at Bowling Green turned out to be the turning point of his hockey career.
"It was one of the best decisions I've ever made," he said.
Jamieson Oleksiak (Credit: Jim Pierce)
That's music to the ears of 2011 draft-eligible forwards Matthew Nieto of Boston University and Nicholas Shore of Denver University, and defensemen Patrick Koudys of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Adam Clendening of Boston University and Jamieson Oleksiak of Northeastern. All five players were invited to the NHL Combine from May 30 to June 4, where they'll undergo numerous interviews and partake in medical examinations and fitness evaluations.
Each player has high hopes they'll be considered by an NHL team when the NHL Entry Draft takes center stage at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.
Bieksa's advice is something none of the players will take for granted, particular since the sixth-season Canuck played such a vital role in Vancouver's five-game series triumph over the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final. Bieksa's goal 10:18 into the second overtime on Tuesday resulted in Vancouver's first trip to the Cup Final since 1994 -- 17 years to the day.
In 2000-01, Bieksa joined the Falcons and produced 13 points in 35 games as a freshman to help BGSU become the lowest-seeded team (ninth) in CCHA history to advance to the league semifinals. He scored his team's lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Michigan State before Bowling Green was eliminated.
In June 2001, Bieksa was drafted by the Canucks in the fifth round (No. 151). He ended up playing four seasons at Bowling Green, where he scored 75 points in 147 games.
"Let's be realistic," Bieksa said. "At 16 years old, how many kids are actually going to make the NHL? So I wanted a fall-back plan. I didn't want to put all my eggs all in one basket, so I thought I'd go to school and get an education. The college route was picking up then and if I could make the NHL out of college, great, and if not, I had a (finance) degree to fall back on. I'd always been a pretty good student, so I think I made the right decision."
Bieksa said he would recommend college to any junior-age player asking for advice.
"I think there are cases where it's not beneficial, where some kids aren't going to finish school or aren't cut out for the classroom," he said. "But college turns you into a man, especially when you're moving away from home and living on your own. In college, you have unlimited responsibilities and schedules you have to fulfill. It's a great learning experience. I think you see a lot of college guys who, when they enter the NHL as rookies, are a little more mature as people on and off the ice."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale