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Bina's perseverance show more grit than glitz

by Lindsay Kramer
Toughness is drawn to its own. So of all the diversions that could occupy his time in Las Vegas, it was a natural that Wranglers defenseman Robbie Bina chose to spend a recent free evening at a rodeo show.

"It's something that really intrigued me when I watched it on TV, the toughness of the cowboys, the animals," Bina said a couple hours before the roundup. "If I ever get a chance I'd like to try it, as long as I knew I wouldn't get hurt."

And if Bina did get a little banged up, well, chances are he'd bounce right back. Just like he has in hockey.

The second-year defenseman, all 5-foot-8 of him, is bringing his own show to "The Strip" this season, a mixture of grit amidst all the glitz. He is tied for second among league defenseman with 18 points, 4 goals and 14 assists in just 17 games.

Those numbers are impressive enough standing on their own. They beat with a much stronger pulse when even Bina's own coach, Ryan Mougenel, said he doesn't know if he'd have the guts to take the ice and produce them if he wore Bina's skates.

Every drop of results that Bina squeezes out of his pro career is one more step that distances him from his traumatic past and, at the same time, one more reason to revisit it for inspiration.

Bina suffered a broken neck when he took a hit from behind while playing for North Dakota in the WCHA playoffs in 2005, his sophomore season. He needed surgery to repair a shattered vertebra. The horrific injury initially put his career in doubt, but after sitting out the following season, Bina returned for two more productive years at the school.

The psychological stitching took a little longer to fade away, but Bina insists it has. His play backs up that claim.

"The fear is totally gone. When I get hit, I don't think about anything. I just keep playing on," he said. "I put it behind me, look to the future. As soon as I was able to get back out there, things fell into place."

Mougenel knows what his eyes tell him, but he still can't fathom how Bina has the steely calm to play with the same aggressiveness.

"He enjoys his teammates. He enjoys coming to the rink. I don't think things like that bother him," Mougenel said. "It would bother me. It would consume my thoughts every time I stepped on the ice."

That's probably a common sentiment, but in Bina's case it would distract from what's been a revelatory season.

Bina, 26, got his first break before the season even started, when Mougenel was named head coach of the Wranglers in June. Mougenel was an assistant coach for Bina's Stockton squad last year, and loved what he saw from the rookie.

"Robbie is a special player," Mougenel said. "What he doesn't have in height he makes up for in determination and will."

Mougenel put his strategy where his mouth is. Last season, Bina flashed modest offensive potential -- 1 goal and 7 assists in 28 games with Stockton and those exact same numbers in 37 contests with Springfield of the AHL.

Placed in charge of his own team in Las Vegas, Mougenel vowed that he'd give Bina a chance to grow offensively.

"He's never been put in that role as someone who can be counted on for offensive output. That's what he needed," Mougenel said. "He just skates so well. He's got great wheels and great vision. He creates that second wave of attack, which actually ends up paying dividends."

Bina said everything flows from the faith Mougenel shows in his game.

"It's definitely great. He knows what kind of player I am, what to expect from me. He'll give me a lot of chances," Bina said. "This year is probably the most I've been (depended) on for that kind of stuff. I'm just happy to get those chances, keep coach thinking that I should be out there in those situations."

"I don't know if it's as much proving people wrong as wanting to be good at (hockey). I knew I had to prove myself because of my size. I think it's just knowing how to play with my size. I'm not going to be a guy who pushes people around." -- Robbie Bina

That faith is set up by a heightened commitment to defense that stretches far beyond Bina's undersized frame. Mougenel praised Bina's game sense in playing between the dots in his own end, knowing when to stay around the slot and when to risk venturing out along the boards. The coach also called Bina the best shot-blocker he's ever seen at the ECHL level.

To Bina, that resolve comes down to something bigger than the sport. He grew up in Grand Forks, N.D., with a father who put in real work as the owner of a masonry company, a profession that forces you to plow through days both good and bad.

Putting yourself on the line in a game? What does size matter when it comes to that?

"I don't know if it's as much proving people wrong as wanting to be good at (hockey)," Bina said. "I knew I had to prove myself because of my size. I think it's just knowing how to play with my size. I'm not going to be a guy who pushes people around."

Still, Bina has no intention of pulling back on the shoving. His strong start earned him a recall to San Antonio earlier this season, a modest reward that paid off with only a couple games played there. Such short-changing is easily converted into more motivation in Bina's world.

"It didn't happen there. I'm back here trying to make something happen," he said. "There's still a lot of time yet this year. Maybe I'll get in some games with someone else, or with San Antonio again. If I ever get a chance again, I'm going to try to take advantage of it. I don't put a lot of thought into a whole lot of things. I hope for the best, hope things work out. If not, work harder the next time."

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