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My Journey to the NHL - Alex Burrows

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

Four years ago, Alex Burrows was getting called up to play for the Vancouver Canucks as virtual unknown. After his first year in the NHL, Burrows earned a loyal fan following in Vancouver as the underdog and now, in his fourth season with the Canucks, he's become a pivotal part of the team.

The Pincourt, Quebec native, who grew up in the Vaudreuil area hasn't forgotten his roots and his struggle to get to the NHL after years in the East Coast Hockey League before getting a tryout with the Manitoba Moose. 

While he's scoring goals and helping his team win games, it wasn't always that way for the feisty winger.  The former soccer player and goalie turned NHL forward has come a long way since lacing up his first pair of skates at the Vaudreuil arena.

Burrows shares his tales on his road to the NHL.
What was your first hockey team?

Must have been the Westlake Panthers, I think it was. I was probably five years old then. I don’t really remember much but I still have some friends from when I was on that team that I still hang out with and spend a lot of time with.

Growing up, the rink was my...

Favourite place to be.

I was there maybe twice a week as a kid so it wasn’t that much but we used to get on the outdoor rink or on the lake and play street hockey a lot.

How did you get into hockey?

I don’t really know. Back then – I was born in 1981 – and the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1986 so that factored in for sure. My dad never really knew anything about hockey because he’s from England and I think when I was five, hockey was a big topic in Montreal and a lot of kids got into hockey and that’s probably how I got into it. Almost all my friends that I still talk to or hang out with all used to play hockey growing up.

What role did your family have in your hockey career growing up?

They were everything back then and they still are. They spent a lot of money and a lot of time to take me to the rink.

Growing up at five or six years old, you practice at 7am. My mom and dad would have to get up on the weekend to drive me to the rink and spend time with me there. They spent a lot of time helping become a hockey player even though they told me to stay home and play with your friends instead.

My two sisters used to do dance so they would drive me to practice in the morning and then drive them afterwards. My parents were busy and they did a lot for us and I’m really grateful.

What was hockey like growing up in your hometown?

It was everything. I think that’s all we did was play hockey. For me and my friends, we would play ball hockey, street hockey, on the pond everywhere. That’s what we used to do after school and on weekends.

An experience to remember:

It was a hockey school that my parents signed me up for in the summer for four week and Pat Burns was one of the coaches there. Back then, he was the Montreal Canadiens coach so that was pretty neat and I was really happy to meet him.

How did you make the decision between soccer and hockey?

It was really difficult because I really liked soccer back then, it was one of my favourite sports – I used to watch and play, same as hockey.

When I was just playing hockey for fun, soccer was getting pretty intense, I think I liked playing hockey more when I reached 16 years old. It started getting serious in major junior in Quebec so that’s why I put soccer aside.

What was something that you cherished when you were younger?

I used to be a goalie a lot in street hockey so I had the goal, the sticks, gloves but then I got my first set of goalie pads for Christmas. That was probably my favourite gift growing up. That was the first time I put them on and they were on the wrong leg so it was pretty funny.

We had so much fun with those. I think we pretty much destroyed them, I mean they hung in there for a while but after two years, they were done.

What was the biggest obstacle for you to get to the NHL?

At a younger age, I think my size was a big reason why I was never drafted in major junior. I think I was 5’6” when I was 17, and didn’t grow into my height until I was 18 so that was a really big set back. It didn’t really bother me that much, I just wanted to keep going and take the time to achieve my dream.

Did you always know that this was the path you were going to take?

No, I was hoping for it but my parents always told me to go to school because that was more reasonable and the way to succeed in life and to get a job.

I thought they were right, too, there are so many hockey players in the world, there’s only so many that make it into the NHL so it’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck too.

But it wasn’t what I thought I would do my whole life.

Was there a time that made you re-think choosing this path?

No, I never wanted to quit because this is what I want to do. I remember in the East Coast Hockey League in my second year, I told myself that if I wasn’t going to make it in Manitoba, then I was probably going to go back to school.

I was getting to that age, I was 22 years old and I didn’t have a degree or a lot of money from playing hockey so I didn’t think it was the smartest thing.

I told myself that if I didn’t make it that I would find a way to go to school and get a real job and start working. Fortunately, it was the lockout year and I was able to make the team in Manitoba.

Craig Heisinger was the one that gave me the chance, I owe him a lot. He’s the one who found me in the East Coast and gave me my first tryout and my first contract in the American League. He was always there for me and didn’t say no to me for anything. That’s why a team like the Manitoba Moose are so successful is because of a man like Zinger.

Do you ever still get the feeling like this is unbelievable that you've made it here?

Some days I do. A couple years ago, everyday I would tell myself that but now I know a little more of what to expect and I’m not surprised anymore. I’m always thankful and I want to work as hard as I can so I can stay here as long as I can.

What advice would you give someone aspiring to play in the NHL?

Work hard and be ready to sacrifice a lot. If you’re willing to pay the price and go through the ups and downs. Never quit, keep working hard to improve everyday, keep going and good things are going to happen.
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