“I played a lot of hockey games and a lot of minutes,” recalls Bieksa of last season, where he appeared in all 82 regular season games along with nine playoff games. “I feel like I’ve been in a lot of different situations now.”
Not too long ago, Bieksa was barely a blip on the fans’ radar let alone a household name. Drafted 151st overall in 2001, the then-20 year old rearguard had made it no secret he was planning to stay for a full four years at Bowling Green State University. If you subscribe to the theory that history tends to repeat itself – the names of Curtis Valentine and Paul Cabana still a lingering sour note – Bieksa could easily have been just another media guide footnote. ALL-ACADEMIC
Remaining at college, however, was actually a testament to Bieksa’s dedication to hockey. As someone who grew up dreaming about playing in the NHL, willingly taking the long road to get there is like volunteering to drive your younger siblings in your first new car – it’s not glamourous, but it builds up skill and ability. Although it was painful at first, Bieksa admits staying in school was the best decision he’s ever made.
“I was 23 when I turned pro [with Manitoba], but certainly the extra years in college helped me,” said an adamant Bieksa. “I was a small guy in junior and I needed the extra couple of years in the gym to work out. College allowed me to do that.”
With fewer games and more practice opportunities, college gave the former Bowling Green Falcon a chance to pinpoint his problem-areas and work slowly to improve upon them. More importantly, it showed him the work ethic it takes to develop himself into an all-around player, particularly away from the rink – a philosophy he continues to approach the game with today.
“I look at my game and think of the things I have to get better at,” reveals Bieksa, whose commitment to excellence extended into the classroom where he earned a 3.42 GPA. “That’s the goal I have going into every summer – to get a bit stronger, to get a bit faster, and to work on the things I need to work on.”
The four years in the NCAA, along with time in the American Hockey League, helped Bieksa mature both as a hockey player and as an individual. Stepping into the Canucks dressing room last season, however, was a big departure from the structured, developmental environment of college and the AHL. STEPPING UP
With just two returning veterans on the blue line, Bieksa found himself with the challenge, and the opportunity, to step into a prominent role on a team desperate for a pleasant surprise. In a situation where many good, young players might have succumbed to the pressure, the 6’1”, 205-pound defenceman not only kept his composure, but managed to excel in the process.
“Obviously Eddie [Jovanovski] and Bryan [Allen] were two very good players, but they were two very different players [compared to me],” says Bieksa. “I don’t think I tried to replace either of them. I just tried to stick to my game and do what I could to help the team.”
Bieksa concedes, however, that his breakout season may have had a lot to do with a familiar face in Alain Vigneault, who had previously coached him in the AHL. Last year’s NHL Coach-of-the-Year disagrees.
“I can’t say that I ever saw [Bieksa] becoming a top-four defenceman,” admits a candid Vigneault. “Kevin was not that tall or that big. He had good skill, but I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out.”
“He deserved the ice-time and the chance that he got because he was playing well,” continues Vigneault on Bieksa’s on-ice accomplishments and work ethic. “Kevin can sometimes be a little casual on the ice. Sometimes he can be too emotional. When he’s in a good emotional state, he’s real sharp on the ice. I think that’s what he needs to learn as he gets more experience as a pro. He needs to be more consistent, and I think he’s working on that right now.”
For his part, last year’s Unsung Hero and Most Outstanding Defenceman isn’t planning on resting on his laurels. Despite his accomplishments, Bieksa remains committed to improving every facet of his game, committed to his teammates – whether that means mentoring the younger players or dropping the gloves to protect a linemate – and committed to the fans of Vancouver. A PLACE TO CALL HOME
Signing a three-year extension over the summer to keep him in Canucks colours through the 2010-11 season was the perfect reflection of these commitments. And despite media speculation suggesting otherwise, at the end of the day, it was a really a no-brainer for the would-be unrestricted free agent.
“Why would I want to leave this team? We have a great group of guys. We’re going to be a competitive group these next few seasons,” says Bieksa of the team that won the Northwest Division title in 2006-07. “In my opinion [Vancouver is] the best place to play in the NHL. It was a pretty easy decision for me to make.”
His teammates, in particular his defensive partner Willie Mitchell, are equally ecstatic that Bieksa will be sticking around. “I can stop having to buy him dinners now,” jokes Mitchell. “Maybe now with this new deal he’ll buy me dinner.”
Knowing Bieksa’s devotion to leaving no stones unturned, it likely won’t take too long for him to foot the bill at the next team outing. But for now, he’ll just concentrate on feeding the puck to the front of the net, and feeding his new son, Cole, that wife, Katie, gave birth to in October.
“Things are good for me,” reflects Bieksa. “I’m looking forward to new adventures being a dad for the first time. It’s a pretty interesting, pretty exciting time for me.”
A time he’s glad to spend in the city he’s come to call home.