By Matt Barkoff
Jan Bulis has now come full circle in his hockey life. At least the part of his career that has allowed him to play at the highest level for almost a decade.
A pioneer of sorts, Bulis came to North America as a bright-eyed 16-year-old and burst on the scene with the Kelowna Spartans of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. From there he went on to star in the Ontario Hockey League and was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1996.
"It's been 12 or 13 years now in North America," Bulis reflected. "I left pretty early. I left home when I was about 16 years old and I played three years in junior. The first year I played in Tier II because I came too early. I was underage, so I had to wait one more year. Then I played two more in the OHL with Barrie."
Only a few years after Bulis first came to what is now the BCHL, European players are prohibited from playing in Tier II, otherwise known as Junior 'A' in Canada.
"It all changed because I remember going to an invitation camp in Brainerd, Minnesota, and there were all kinds of players there," the 6', 194-pounder said. "Radek Bonk was there and players of all ages played a bunch of scrimmages against each other. That's where the GM from Kelowna saw me and asked my agent if I would like to go play there. I wanted to leave (Europe) because I figured I would have a better chance of being drafted playing here rather than being stuck in junior over in Europe. It's different now but it worked well for me back in 1994."
Bulis credits legendary junior coach Bert Templeton with rounding out his game and getting the forward ready for NHL competition.
"I got taken second overall in the European draft and played for an expansion team in Barrie under Bert Templeton," Bulis said. "It was a great two years under that guy. He really helped me out with the game. I had all the offensive tools but he really helped me as a centreman in the defensive zone and helped me improve my overall game."
Bulis had some decent offensive years with the Capitals but battled injuries almost constantly. He claims to have had four major injuries including a dislocated shoulder that required surgery in his third year and two separate sprained ankles that forced him to miss close to four months as an NHL freshman. Still, seasons of 23 points in 38 games and 31 points in 56 contests got him a shot on the top few lines in Montreal after a trade to the Habs in 2001.
Last year, Bulis set career highs in goals and points with 20 and 40 but found it was time to move on when the Canucks came calling in July.
"After five years in Montreal I became an unrestricted free agent and I decided I wanted to get out of there," he said. "It was a good experience in a great hockey city. It's always good to play in a situation where there's lots of pressure, and it's pretty much the same thing here. If you play hard every game and give it all you've got, then you don't have too many problems. Even if the points are not there, people in hockey towns still see that you are working hard and that's what they appreciate most."
As a 10-year veteran of the NHL wars, Bulis can't believe how time has flown. He had his best offensive season since posting 103 points with the Colts in 1996-97 when he returned to his hometown of Pardubice in the Czech Republic during the 2004 lockout.
"I played with Milan Hejduk from Colorado. We had a Czech centreman on our line and we ended up 1-2-3 in league scoring," Bulis, who struck for 24 goals and 49 points in 45 games, said. "We all had a great season and ended up winning the whole thing in the playoffs too."
Bulis, who'll turn 29 in March, is looked up to by younger Canucks, not too mention his infant son.
"I'm married and we have an 18-month-old son. Recently, my parents came over, too, so we've got a full house now," he said happily. "Once the baby was born there was a lot less time to do much else. In the summers, I spend a lot of time working off-ice, like on the bike or in the gym. But I've got a couple of Harleys, and really enjoy going for a ride when there is a bit of time. If I get a chance I'll play some golf or tennis too but my family comes first on off-days during the hockey season."