The Olympics couldn't have come at a better time for the Vancouver Canucks
It provided a number of their players a break from a demanding 14-game road trip, the longest in NHL history. The Canucks will be away from General Motors Place for 42 days, during which time they will travel more than 13,000 miles in three time zones and visit 13 cities (Columbus twice).
In addition to a well-deserved breather for the club, the Olympic break afforded some valuable healing time for injured defenseman Kevin Bieksa
. And the prognosis is a good one for the talented blueliner following an ankle laceration in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes
in late December. Barring any complications, the 28-year old will be back on the ice for the Canucks at some point during the final six games of their epic road trip.
This is great news for Canucks fans, who were concerned and anxious about the fate of the popular player as the injury responsible for Bieksa's absence seemed like déjà vu. It was just two years ago the linchpin of the Vancouver blue line missed 47 games after an opponent's skate severely lacerated Bieksa's right calf muscle.
"It's not the same injury," said Bieksa. "It's a coincidence with the skate cut but it's a totally different tendon ... so I don't think we can really compare the two. Last time I was in a hard cast for seven weeks and couldn't walk at all. This time I (was) walking three or four days after surgery."
"I learned to deal with (the mental aspects) during my last injury. You can only feel sorry for yourself for so long. You've got to get (those thoughts) out of your head early and start the recovery process. I took care of most of that at home and (I owe) a lot of credit to my family and my wife for helping me get through that. Now I am looking to get back." -- Kevin Bieksa
Hockey players are human beings first and foremost. While cuts and abrasions are part of the ice-war trade, deep wounds are downright scary and can affect a player's psyche.
"I learned to deal with (the mental aspects) during my last injury," said Bieksa. "You can only feel sorry for yourself for so long. You've got to get (those thoughts) out of your head early and start the recovery process. I took care of most of that at home and (I owe) a lot of credit to my family and my wife for helping me get through that. Now I am looking to get back."
To their credit, the Canucks have played well since Bieksa's injury -- and a concussion injury in mid-January to Bieksa's long-time defense partner, Willie Mitchell
. Depth players such as Aaron Rome
and Nolan Baumgartner
filled in admirably, but it doesn't hurt their winning cause that the Canucks are backstopped by their team captain, who just happens to be considered by many as the premier goaltender in the Western Conference.
"It's no secret that this team is built around Roberto Luongo
," said defenseman Shane O'Brien
. "If we let him see the puck and play good defense and make smart plays with the puck, then he usually makes the saves and keeps us out of trouble. We've got a good back end and real responsible forwards."
The team managed to produce a .500 record during the eight pre-Olympic road games -- a record that should improve with Bieksa's return. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound native of Grimsby, Ont., doesn't strike an imposing figure but looks can be deceiving. Bieksa intimidates through effort -- he simply won't surrender. Opponents don't like playing against him because Bieksa always finishes his checks and plays an in-your-face style of defense.
Bieksa's warrior attitude will prove vital during the critical battles down the stretch and into the playoffs.
"Our game is about warriors," said Montreal Canadiens
assistant coach Perry Pearn. "It's a tremendous asset for a team to have toughness on defense. The opposition has to battle through the tough guys every night. Some nights you might want to pay the price against them but the way those warriors battle, to pay the price against them every night is a real challenge. That's what gives the edge to those teams that have those kind of defensemen, especially in the playoffs."
A fifth-round pick by Vancouver in the 2001 Entry Draft, Bieksa originally was projected to be a fifth or sixth defenseman who could provide energy for a few minutes each game. But the Bowling Green graduate had a loftier goal. He believed that if he worked hard on his game he could become a top-ranked professional and he has proven it -- first in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose, and since 2006 with the Canucks.
"Defense is all about making reads, positioning on the ice, supporting your partner and winning one-on-one battles," said Bieksa. "If you are doing those things right, you are going to do well defensively."
Last season, Bieksa led all Canucks defensemen in goals (11), assists (32), points (43) and average ice time per game (23:29). His assist and point totals were career highs, yet he doesn't set offensive markers. He simply wants to get better each season.
"I don't really set a target," said Bieksa. "I know that one of my jobs is to contribute offensively. In the past I have put up 40-point seasons, so that is a minimum I try to reach every year. I am one of those guys that just tries to do a little bit better every year. So I like to surpass last year's totals and I know when I am doing that I am helping out the team. It is not really a personal preference, it's more a case of, if I am putting numbers up then I know I am helping the team score goals."
It used to be thought a defenseman like Bieksa would be reaching his peak at age 28, but that rule of thumb no longer applies in the modern game.
"I disagree with that line of thought because we are now seeing a trend with defensemen peaking more in their early 30s," said Bieksa. "As the years goes on you will see a lot more defensemen playing until they're 40. There are several in the League right now. I certainly don't feel that I am at my peak. I think that I am learning the game more and more every year and getting smarter out there. I know I can get better. Physically I feel that I can get stronger and in a little better shape. I am hoping that my best years are ahead of me."
It's safe to predict that for Bieksa and the Vancouver Canucks
, the best is yet to come.