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Intensity, grit and determination

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Chris Higgins was walking down a flight of stairs post-practice earlier this month when he spotted a folded $20 bill on the step ahead.

In one fluent motion Higgins swooped down and grabbed it, he then handed it to the man to his right, his father Bobby.

Chris smiled knowing full well he won’t ever be able to pay his father back for helping him become the man he is today.

Bobby, a 58-year-old NYFD firefighter, made the trip to San Jose with his brother Richard, a 61-year-old utilities worker in New York, for Games 3 & 4 of the Western Conference Final just over a week ago.

On the Saturday between games the Canucks practiced at Sharks Ice, the largest rink facility west of the Mississippi River, giving fans of all ages a chance to see the pros up close.

Bobby and Richard didn’t have their faces pressed up to the glass like the others, but with this trip being their first glimpse of Chris on the ice since January and the first time watching him with the Canucks, it was only because no posh window spots were available.

To hear Bobby and Richard speak of Chris is an experience like few others I’ve had in this business. For starters, their thick New York accents made our conversation feel like an episode of The Sopranos, the one where I get shot.

Then there’s the pride.

“The best thing about Chris is that he never forgot where he came from over all the years,” said uncle Richard. “I always told him that it was good to be a good hockey player, but he’s always been a great person with his family and his friends, I’m sure he’s a great teammate with the Canucks family and he’s good towards mom and dad and the rest of his family. That’s his best attribute.”

That’s been Chris, in a nutshell, since he was young.

Growing up in Smithtown, New York, Chris, the second of five children, was a quiet kid who did well at school and loved to play hockey. The Higgins have always been a tight-knit family, very loving, very caring, always there for each other. That stuck with Chris, even after he was drafted 14th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Montreal Canadiens, his dad’s favourite team, at the tender age of 19.

With Montreal frequenting Eastern cities within driving distance of New York, it was always a family affair when Chris’ Canadiens came to town, beginning in 2005-06 when he made the jump to the NHL.

Higgins spent four seasons in Montreal before a family dream was realized and Chris became a member of the New York Rangers.

Watching Chris suit up for the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden was an emotional event for the Higgins clan as Bobby and Richard went to the Garden with their dad growing up, Bobby played there as part of the annual FDNY vs. NYPD hockey game, Richard competed in track events at the historic building and Kevin, Chris’ younger brother, was inducted into the New York Police Department under the same roof.

Chris wasn’t in New York long, just 55 games to open the 2009-10 season to be exact, but in that time he was able to truly reconnect with his family for the first time since leaving home at age 14 to attend Avon Old Farms prep school in Connecticut, before going to Yale University.

Not that it was lacking, but Chris gained an immense amount of perspective spending time with his dad, a firefighter of 33 years, the captain of FDNY Engine Company 231 in Brooklyn and one of the heroic respondents to the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and his brother Kevin, an officer with the New York Police Department.

“Their worst days are a lot worse than mine, that’s for sure,” said Chris. “If you turn the puck over, it’s not as bad as watching somebody get hurt on the job.

“The hard work runs in the family with them, they’re pretty loyal guys, pretty humble guys, I hope a little bit rubbed off on me.”

It all did, as well as the intensity, grit and determination it takes to fight fires, maintain the peace and succeed in the NHL – although none of that matters at Higgins family reunions.

“Most of the Higgins are athletic,” said Richard, “so we always kid Chris that he’s the man on the hockey team, but when he comes home, he has trouble breaking into the family wiffle ball line-up.

“The Higgins take athletic excellence to heart and Chris exhibits that in what he does.”

It was difficult to get a read on Higgins in just 14 regular season games with the Canucks after he was acquired at the trade deadline this season, but in 18 playoff games, he’s more than made a name for himself in Vancouver.

The Canucks forward, a regular with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond on the second line, has four goals and three assists going into the Stanley Cup Final; Vancouver is 4-0 when Higgins scores and with three game-winning goals, he is currently one golden goal from setting the franchise record for most in a playoff year, a record he shares with Geoff Courtnall (three in 1994) at the moment.

When the smoke clears from Vancouver’s highly anticipated Final series with the Boston Bruins and we reflect on the 2011 season, Higgins joining the Canucks will be viewed as a major turning point.

Higgins doesn’t need to reflect on the turning point of his professional career or why he ended up getting a shot at the Cup, because he already knows the reason.

Higgins strove to be like his old man and not only did it pay off, he hit the jackpot.

“If I could be half the man he is, I’d be a happy guy,” said Chris.

“I'm very proud of the man and the hockey player he’s become,” said Bobby. “But I’ve learned more from my children than they did from me.”

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