By: Kevin Kinghorn
There's flying under the radar, and then there's skulking belly-down through the grass.
Kevin Bieksa's more of a crawler than a flyer - though things seem to be turning around.
The hard-knuckled rookie defender has kicked up a little dust with a tenacious, ill-tempered game since making his Canuck debut in mid December.
He's far from making a run at Dion Phaneuf's unofficial rookie defenceman crown, but he's been plenty valuable on Vancouver's back end.
Fresh injuries to Ed Jovanovski and Wade Brookbank have left the Canuck blue line with as much depth as a Paris Hilton interview; and that's only further boosted Bieksa's stock.
The Canucks are now counting on him to reel in some of the slack.
That's great news for a fourth-round pick who played four years of college hockey in Ohio, and was muddling down near the drain of Vancouver's prospect pool only two seasons ago.
Missing out on all the hype reserved for the highly touted junior draft picks, Bieksa was an unknown.
He emerged from four years at Bowling Green University with as much fanfare as the announcement of the GST.
That anonymity didn't last long.
Bieksa posted 39 points, with 12 goals, and 192 penalty minutes in 80 games with the Manitoba Moose, and was named to the AHL's all-rookie team.
Only a high-ankle sprain kept him from making a run at the Canuck roster out of training camp.
"He had an extremely good year last year," says Nolan Baumgartner, who captained the Manitoba Moose to the Calder Cup semi-finals in 2004-05. "For a guy playing at that level in his first year, he was very mature."
"He had great year point-wise, and stat-wise, I think he was plus-20 or something. It showed he could play defense as well."
Bieksa hasn't caught fire quite the same in the NHL. For one, he doesn't quarterback the power play. And despite the odd flashy rush, he takes a defense-first approach in Vancouver.
Through 20 games with the Canucks, Bieksa is plus-1, with 3 points, and is averaging just over 16 minutes a night partnered with Mattias Ohlund.
"He's learning every day when he comes to the rink," says Baumgartner. "Especially up here where you get to watch guys like Ohlund and Salo. You learn a lot from them. It's definitely beneficial for him to be here this long and get to play in games."
But it's far from a one-way street. Bieksa's added a dimension of toughness to a Vancouver blue-line unit that's thin on fighting majors.
"I think he surprises a lot of people," says Baumgartner. "He plays a physical game, and the thing is, he can back it up. I've seen him beat up a few guys."
"It's always nice to see a guy with that type of skill and can play the game, who can also look after himself. You can always use that element. It adds something for sure."
Mistakenly listed at 6'4" in most media guides, Bieksa tops out at 6'1", 180 pounds.
He's not tall for a defenceman, but he's solid. He showed up to training camp looking like a professional wrestler - though he hardly fights like one.
Just ask Byron Ritchie, Matthew Barnaby and Kevin Colley; all three have tested Bieksa's temper and come out sorry for it.
"It's a part of my game," admits Bieksa, "but it's definitely not all of my game. Hockey is an emotional game, and sticking up for your teammates and trying to change the momentum is part of it. If I can contribute there, then that's great."
"I'm just trying to find ways to help this team right now. If [fighting] is where I can contribute, and playing steady defensively, than that's my role right now."
Despite message-board rumors, Bieksa isn't a boxer. He says he grew up with a pair of competitive brothers.
"I had an older one and a younger one, and we wrestled and stuff. I had a few teachers along the way but never any formal lessons."
His spirited physical game has quickly endured him to Canuck fans, but Bieksa's far from the stereotypical scrapper.
For one, he's smart. Unlike most Canadian kids with a promising future in hockey, Bieksa didn't blindly leap into the junior ranks, despite Mississauga drafting him out of bantam.
"I thought [college] would be best for me if hockey didn't work out," says Bieksa. "It's something else to fall back on. I think it was a pretty good decision. College hockey's been growing lately and the hockey's as good, if not better than major junior. It was a pretty easy decision."
He was an academic All-American at Bowling Green and graduated with a business degree specializing in finance.
"It was just something that I thought would help me out down the road - something practical that you need to know about."
It could be a long way down the road before he needs it.
He's fast becoming a fan-favorite for his blunt approach to the game - though his self-confessed "practical" nature does kick in now and then.
Bieksa found himself face-to-face with a red-faced Sydney Crosby in a game against the Penguins two weeks ago. "The Kid" came at Bieksa after the whistle and swung a few ill-advised gloves in his direction.
"I just hit him earlier in that shift pretty good and he didn't like it," says Bieksa. "He took at whack at Auldy after the whistle and I just gave him a shove."
"He went crazy there in the scrum. He's not really my typical opponent. He was pretty into it though. I don't know where it would have went if the linesmen didn't step in."
Thankfully for Crosby, Bieksa didn't oblige him right away, and in the process avoided becoming the lead highlight on every sports loop across the country.
The tussle did make Bob McKenzie's Hockey Insider segment on TSN the following day.
McKenzie mentioned how lucky the uppity Crosby was that Bieksa didn't "punch his lights out."
"I keep hearing about that," says Bieksa. "I didn't see it, but people keep telling me I 'made it,' because Bob McKenzie's talking about me."
He should probably get used to the talk.
It looks like the radar may have finally found him down there in the grass after all.