Alex Burrows is a prime example. He was never drafted, despite enjoying a phenomenal final season in junior hockey, scoring 70 points in 64 regular-season games while adding 9 goals and 19 points in 10 playoff contests. But NHL teams showed no interest. So Burrows packed his bags and moved to the southern states in 2002 to play for a couple years in the ECHL with stops in Greenville, Baton Rouge and Columbia.
The minor-league journey continued in 2003 when he signed with the AHL's Manitoba Moose and was assigned to their ECHL affiliate, the Columbia Inferno. There, he averaged better than a point per game. He became a regular with Manitoba in 2004-05 and finally got a chance to pull on a Vancouver Canucks jersey during the 2005-06 season when the parent club was decimated with injuries. The gritty forward hasn't looked back since.
"I was an over-age 19 year-old in the QMJHL and then played two years down south in the East Coast Hockey League," Burrows, 27, said. "In the lockout year, I finally caught a break and played 72 games in Manitoba. The Moose had a really good team that year coached by Randy Carlyle and we had a lot of the good players. The next year I started in the American League with Manitoba again and got off to a good start with Alain (Vigneault) as the coach. Then at Christmas there were a lot of injuries in Vancouver and I was able to get a break. I got called up and I have been here ever since."
It's a long way from the ECHL to the NHL, but Burrows is living proof that even with ordinary talents, a man with extraordinary perseverance can achieve his boyhood dream -- a career in the NHL.
"I remember the first time we brought him to camp here in Vancouver," said former Canucks coach Mark Crawford, now a color commentator with Hockey Night in Canada. "Alex was an East Coast League guy who came to our rookie camp. He was a pretty decent, skilled player, but nothing special. You just thought he was a decent hockey player. He went back to the East Coast League and really won over the coaches down there with his work ethic and intensity. His desire to improve manifested itself in improvement.
"He got a chance at the American League level and the coaches expressed the same thing. We got him back to camp the following year and started to see more improvement. Alex was a contributing player at the minor-league level and someone who the coaches down there all thought would have a chance to play (in the NHL). When we gave him the opportunity he just grabbed hold of it and wasn't going to let go. And that's what you see from him today."
Burrows doesn't rests on his laurels. His development as a player always has been to reach for something even greater and that's one of the secrets to success in any endeavor. Burrows does it in hockey.
"He is a good skater and I think he has become stronger," Crawford said. "Alex has always been a guy that had a great nose for the puck. He is very strong on the puck and willing to do whatever it takes to be a player. Alex can be an agitator. He can get in on the forecheck. He will fight every now and then. He blocks shots. He is good enough that when he has a scoring chance he can capitalize and he is tenacious around the net and is tenacious with the puck. But I think his desire to keep improving is his best quality."
Burrows is picking up where he left off after scoring 10 goals and 19 points in the second half of 2007-08. He finished the season with 31 points and a team-leading plus-11. His point total placed him sixth among Canucks forwards while his 179 penalty minutes topped all Vancouver players. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound wing was named the Canucks' most exciting player for his agitating, yet productive, style of play.
"I don't know if that's a good thing or not because we missed the playoffs," said Burrows, who scored 28 goals and 23 assists in 82 games this season. "I would rather get more wins and be in the playoffs than win a personal award, but it was nice. I worked very hard. I play as hard as I can every night to make a difference to help the team win games. It was nice to get that award, but at the end of the day we missed the playoffs and that was very disappointing."
At times this season, Burrows joined Kesler and Jannik Hansen to form one of the most effective checking units in the NHL. The trio was especially valuable because they achieve a balance between offense and defense. Top lines often don't like playing on the defensive side of the puck, so a skilled checking unit can create opportunities for themselves and score clutch goals that can turn a game around.
"My main role is to play well on the penalty-killing unit and check the other team's top line and make sure they are not on the score sheet," Burrows said. "When we can get some offense going it is always a plus. Every time your checking line scores a goal it is always important, especially in those tight games. I really like to play in those low-scoring games and it is a plus when we can score and add some offense to our team."
Offense. That's what the Canucks look for Burrows to continue to add to his impressive defensive resume. An early frontrunner this season for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's premier defensive forward, Burrows continues to grow into a complete player and a dangerous forward on either side of the puck.
"I think Alex has really taken the next step," Canucks assistant coach Ryan Walter said. "And it's about his offense. He has always been a pest and he stays in the face of the opposition. Alex is a great checker. Now he has a real offensive bent to his game so he is rounding out as a player."