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Iowa's Liambas is an anti-bullying advocate, both on and off the ice

One of the AHL's toughest players has launched a campaign to help Des Moines-area kids learn the pitfalls of bullying

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

DES MOINES -- Iowa Wild forward Mike Liambas takes seriously his role as an on-ice protector. 

Signed by the Wild last summer to a two-year, two-way contract, Liambas has never been much of an offensive contributor. But he's always earned the admiration of his teammates at various stops because he demands the respect and attention of opponents. 

A Toronto-area native, Liambas has been a nomad of sorts, beginning his pro career with the East Coast Hockey League's Cincinnati Cyclones in 2011. In the nine years since, he's played in Orlando of the ECHL, Milwaukee, Rockford and San Diego in the American Hockey League, and in eight NHL games with Nashville and Anaheim.

Everywhere he's gone, he's quickly endeared himself to teammates and fans as an on-ice protector. When things start to get a little chippy on the ice, Liambas often has enough equity to simply skate up to an opponent's bench and say, "enough." 

Off the ice, Liambas has become a protector as well. Four seasons ago, while skating for the Rockford Ice Hogs, Liambas and then-teammate Pierre-Cedric Labrie came up with an idea to begin an anti-bullying campaign in area schools.

Video: Liambas: Anti-bullying ambassador

"We were sitting on the couch one day and started to throw some ideas out," Liambas said. "It just came to fruition. We talked to the public relations person in Rockford, they helped us put a PowerPoint together and got us one school booked."

That first presentation had maybe 40 or 50 kids present, but as the program continued throughout the school year, it took off. By the end of that year, Liambas and Labrie were presenting in front of a group of 400 kids. 

That's when he knew what he was doing was making a big difference.

"That was pretty cool," Liambas said. "I mean, we play a game. This is real-life stuff. If you can make a difference in one kid's life, even one out of those 400 kids, then I'm satisfied with that."

Liambas wanted to restart the program on his own last year in San Diego, the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, but he was up and down between the clubs too much to really drop roots in the area.

But after signing with the Wild organization last July 1, he reached out to Joe O'Donnell, Iowa's senior director of broadcasting and team services, and Allie Brown, the team's Senior director of marketing and creative services, about getting it going in Des Moines. 

He went to a handful of schools this season, but plans to visit even more next year. 

"The awareness is out there a lot more than it was even four years ago," Liambas said. "Obviously, it's not because of us, but even if we had a small part in that, then I am happy about that."

The irony of the whole situation is not lost on Liambas, who has managed to rack up more than 1,000 penalty minutes in 350 career games in the AHL.

According to the website, Liambas has been in 129 fights since the beginning of his pro hockey career. 

"It's definitely ironic, but I think within the dynamics of a hockey game, it's a little bit different," Liambas said. "Me and [Labrie] aren't guys that are just gonna go jump someone or take advantage of someone. We're gonna do it in the framework of a hockey game, within the rules, sticking up for teammates and when it works for our team. We're not gonna go out there and pinpoint guys and try to bully them, per se."

Iowa coach Tim Army said he wasn't the least bit shocked when he heard Liambas would be a local face in the fight against bullying. That's his job on the ice and in the locker room, and it wasn't the least bit surprising that he would be that was off the ice as well.

"Guys like Mike Liambas can talk about bullying because they're not bullies," Army said. "Guys like him are tough people who meet everything head-on. It's the people that are underneath everything that are bullies.

"He's a guy that looks out for everybody. He takes care of those that might be weaker than him. He protects everybody. He doesn't make fun of them, he doesn't hurt them, he tries to protect them and make them better. I think he's the perfect guy to talk about stuff like that."

Liambas' own experience from bullying is one that has stuck with him for years. Around the time he was in fifth grade, Liambas said he was having trouble with one classmate at school.  

"I still remember the kid's name, I remember everything about the way it went down," Liambas said. "It has always stuck with me."

Liambas was a heavier-set kid, so his classmates would often make fun of his weight. 

"That left a pretty big mark in my head," Liambas said. 

Liambas, who has an older brother and a younger brother, said both of them were bullied as well. 

Fortunately for him, he was able to channel the frustration and hurt in a positive way. He began eating better, transformed his body as a teenager and has been able to carve out a career as a professional athlete.

Obviously, his story is rare. 

For every Mike Liambas, there are 1,000 other kids who struggle to cope with the pressures of bullying, falling prey to depression and anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and being socially isolated, or even worse, self-harm or suicide. 

Psychological effects of bullying can last into adulthood. 

"You see it, and I don't think kids totally mean to do it. When they're that young, I don't think they know the consequences," Liambas said. "That's the biggest thing about these presentations to them, is showing them how it effects not only the kid's life, but their family's life at home and with their siblings and parents. 

"I've been through it first hand and I've seen it, how it can really change someone's course of life."

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*Video provided by Allie Brown, compiled by Dusty Peterson

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