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NCAA PRO-file with Kevin Bieksa

Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 3:40 PM / On Campus

By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent

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NCAA PRO-file with Kevin Bieksa
The smooth-skating defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks came within one win last spring of extending Bowling Green lore as alums who have their names etched on the Stanley Cup.
"No shortage of notable Bowling Green University alums on the NHL sheet.
 
Ken Morrow of the Islanders and 1980 Olympic-gold fame, Brian MacLellan (Calgary), and Greg De Vries and Rob Blake (Colorado) lead the list."

All have their names etched on the Stanley Cup as a player -- Morrow four times in the early 1980s.

Pens' Bylsma credits BG roots



You can count them on one hand: former NCAA players who have won Lord Stanley -- from behind the bench.

Heading the list is "Badger" Bob Johnson (University of Minnesota) with the Penguins in 1991 and John Tortorella (University of Maine), who guided the Lightning to the 2004 Cup.

Peter Laviolette won the Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, and also holds the distinction as the only Division 3 player to do so (Westfield State in Massachusetts).
 
Add Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma to the list. He drank from Lord Stanley in 2009 after a circuitous route to NHL coaching fame that included 12 years across stints in the East Coast League, the AHL, IHL and NHL. 

"I think the experience I had at Bowling Green both as a player and a student and committing to the school is a big part of my success as a player and person and to where I am now," Bylsma told NHL.com recently.

"There were times in the East Coast League that I thought about putting the accounting degree to work. I haven't used it -- maybe indirectly when I read the game summary. But I don't plan on dusting it off either too soon. I keep telling people 'Falcons affect the world.' The alums are out there affecting the world; it's not just in hockey. There's been a ton of success coming out of BG in the hockey world; a number of big names that are on the Cup.
 
"In the spring of '92 when I graduated, I was interviewing with big accounting firms. Still thinking that was the real possibility; no idea at all I would come to this point."

-- Bob Snow
Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma also achieved the distinction -- as a coach. (See sidebar.)

Smooth-skating defenseman Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks came within one win last season of extending Bowling Green lore on the NHL stage of entertainment.

"It would have been special as an alum to win the Cup," Bieksa told NHL.com. "I ran into Dan [Bylsma] at the alumni golf tournament a couple of summers ago just after [Pittsburgh] won the Cup. It would have been special to go back there with a patch of green next time I see him, but still got some time; still some years left. Five more on this contract to make it, so …"
 
Bieksa also has some other unfinished business to which he has committed himself.

"I'm a couple credits short of the degree, but in the process. It'll get done someday," he said.

These two major "somedays" are only possible because of the early days at Bowling Green. Despite winning the national title in 1984 over Minnesota-Duluth in the longest championship game in NCAA history, BG has never been among the top tier of college-hockey programs.

But like many NHL players who went the college path, it's all about taking an opportunity far removed from the expectation to reach the heights and lights on Broadway.

"After seeing my first college game at 15 or 16, I wanted to go that way," Bieksa said about the NCAA route to eventual hockey and career goals.

"Obviously, I had to wait another three years. I got drafted into the OHL and went to camp there and made the team. Then came a real tough decision at 16 that not a lot of people can make to wait another two or three years. Nothing was guaranteed, but I passed on that [major junior] opportunity. At the time, the players and coaching staff and city and geographical location and academics, BG was the right place for me. They were known at the time for putting defensemen in the NHL. They showed a lot of interest and were actually the first team to offer me a scholarship. I was loyal to that, and it was close enough that my family could come down and visit."

For Bieksa, 2000-2004 in Bowling Green, Ohio, was the quintessential definition of developing your game.

"I was a forward until I was 15," Bieksa said of his formative years en route to becoming one of the League's stronger two-way defensemen, "so there's the offensive part of where that started. College for me was -- I was a little small at 17 and 18, so I needed those years to really hit the gym and learn how to train properly and put on a lot of muscle and strength and conditioning. I came out of college a man."
 
In between, the BG run was punctuated with a few memorable games and moments.

"My first year, we went to Joe Louis [Arena] for the CCHA finals. We ended up losing 2-1 to Ryan Miller and Michigan State in the semifinal," Bieksa said. "I scored the goal that ended up the only one. We were leading 1-0 for most of the game. That was the biggest game of my college career."

Another big moment also came his freshman year.

"I got drafted after my first year (2001, fifth round), but never had the opportunity to leave, and wasn't contacted by the Canucks too often. I just kept my head straight and focused and working hard. No matter what was to come, I was still going to train hard and be in good shape in the meantime," Bieksa said.

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"For us at BG, we didn't do a whole lot of skill stuff. If anything, I learned hard work and will. Our workouts were based on trying to break your will and make you quit. I learned to fight through and not quit. The workouts and training in college were second to none. You come to the pro game, and those two things are the most important parts. I felt I was a step ahead in those areas out of college."

The steps ahead would also include three years of employing his will and work ethic daily to get to the NHL.

"At the end of my senior year, I got called up to Manitoba, switched agents, had a good showcase there for four or five games," Bieksa said. "The next year I went to camp slated to play in the East Coast League, but worked my way onto the Moose, had a pretty good year, and the rest is history."

Into his seventh NHL season on the Canucks' blue line, Bieksa has tallied 39 goals and 177 points in 403 games, playing all leading roles as the team's top defenseman and alternate captain.

The Canucks rewarded Bieksa with a lucrative five-year contract last summer after the Stanley Cup run that ended one game short of the ultimate NHL accomplishment.

Regardless, Bieksa holds steadfast to the small-college experience as the reason for his NHL success, and pitches it to younger players. 

"It gives you an opportunity to develop," he said. "A lot of times even good players get lost in those big-name programs, because they have so many kids on scholarships and only so many can play. If you're serious about playing this game for a living, a smaller school gives you the chance to develop your skills. Scouts aren't always right on a player, especially at a young age."

His opinion of the college game now?

"Definitely getting better; there's a whole lot more respect for it," Bieksa said. "When I was coming up, it was just the beginning of that with most of the kids drafted and making it here coming from major juniors. Now it's close -- getting to 50-50. Look at the college guys in this room." 

NHL.com's Top 10

1. Ferris State 20-8-4
2. Boston College 18-10-1
3. Boston Univ. 17-9-1
4. Minnesota-Duluth 19-7-4
5. Michigan 18-10-4
6. Mass.-Lowell 19-8-0
7. Minnesota 19-11-1
8. Union 17-6-7
9. Merrimack 15-7-6
10. Denver 17-9-4
Vancouver had a record 13 former NCAA players on its roster when it played in the Final last year.

The last few years have brought concerns about Bowling Greens's future. Benefactors like Bieksa and other alums have stepped forward to keep the program afloat.

"We'll have to see how it all works out with the new conference change and financially. Obviously that's the main concern and the travel and how that works out," he said. "It's an ongoing battle for them to survive as a smaller-budget school compared to other teams. They'll need to fight for every inch."

As does Bieksa on every shift as he and the Canucks look for redemption this spring.

"There's still a half season left," he said last month. "But the fight is to stay consistent. This league is too good not to be on top of your game. When we are, not many teams can beat us."

Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers