So Far, So Good
First, there was last year's mid-season call up to the NHL from the Manitoba Moose, where the Ontario native quickly established himself as a quality defensive prospect, making a solid impression on fans and teammates alike. Secondly, he got married over the summer, and third, with his ever-increasing ice time so far this season, Bieksa is quickly emerging as one of the team's top defencemen. Seeing as how he's already matched last year's point totals in about half as many games, the results are evident.
"I'm playing a little bit more of my game this year than last year," says Bieksa. "When I came up (from the minors), I probably wasn't 100% and it showed on the ice. I wasn't really playing my game. I'm just happy to be contributing a lot more this year".
While there are many new faces occupying the roster of this year's Vancouver Canucks line-up, Bieksa, with 39 games under his NHL belt, is one of the holdovers from last year's crop. Given that he had half a season to acquaint himself with the parent club, it appears the 25 year old has found the transition to the new regime relatively seamless so far.
"It wasn't difficult for me at all," he says. "I played for half the year in Winnipeg, so I did have to adjust and learn the system here last year when I came in. But starting this year fresh, I had a good feel of what the system would be. I probably benefited more from it than some other people, because I was familiar with what my responsibilities were, especially in my zone under this system, so it was a good adjustment for me."
Drafted by the Canucks in 2001, it would be a few years before the 6'1" blueliner would earn his place on the parent club. While the wait can often be a long and arduous one, Bieksa utilized the time wisely.
"Obviously I wanted to play as soon as possible. I thought realistically, I would I probably be staying (in the minors) four years, and I needed that time to develop. Physically, I needed to get stronger and to get bigger and that's what I worked on in college, and it was a great experience. I wouldn't have left early if I had to do it over again".
Bieksa's route to the NHL was more of the road less traveled, opting to earn a degree in finance at Bowling Green while playing in the US Collegiate ranks, as opposed to a junior hockey career in his native Ontario. His reason for this was a simple one.
"Getting an education was the motivation," says Bieksa. "Making the decision at 16 was the tough one, but looking at the long term benefits, I think getting a four year degree paid for while playing hockey at the same time just kind of seemed like the better option and I think one of the best decisions I ever made."
Born in Grimsby, Ontario, Bieksa grew up just an hour outside of Toronto, arguably, one of this country's ultimate hockey markets. But unlike so many of his peers, he didn't share their dream and aspire to one day to don the coveted Maple Leaf. Why not?
"That's a good question," says Bieksa, "probably because everyone around me were Leaf fans. My parents were Detroit Red Wings fans, which was kind of weird, so I was always a Steve Yzerman fan, but I never really had a favourite team while growing up. I had favourite players on different teams, but never had one specific team."
That said, he does look forward to a January encounter in Toronto.
"It's pretty exciting to play the Leafs because that is the team that I've watched most of my life. Growing up in Ontario, they were always on Hockey Night in Canada. Going there this year and playing in the Air Canada Centre will be pretty special, having all my family and friends there".
Being based on the west coast, the NHL schedule can be a grueling one as far as travel is concerned, not exactly an ideal situation for a newlywed couple.
"That's one of the tough parts of this profession because there's so much travel, but it goes with the territory," says Bieksa. "You get summers off, which is the nice part, but during the season, there is the travel and that's hard on (wife) Katie, but she's adjusted well to it."
On the ice, Bieksa plays a physical game and isn't afraid to make his presence felt at any time. "I like playing that way," he says. "I grew up with two brothers and we'd wrestle every day. That stuff is fun, but the way the game is now and the way it's called, you've got to be a little bit more contained. If you take a run at a guy and miss him, and your stick gets caught in his feet, it's a penalty. I may be a little more cautious that way now, but if there's the chance, I'll definitely look for a hit."
With fan expectations raised for the Vancouver Canucks, you can be certain that players, too, look for a better outcome than in recent seasons. As a relative newcomer, Bieksa is no exception.
"I've set goals for myself, not necessarily the number of goals or statistics, but I want to be an impact player this year and have a hand inn the results of the game. I just want to help this team win more than last year. I had a different role last year and I wanted a more important one this year. That was my goal and... so far, so good."