On The Radar
In fact, by the time May 18th rolls around, the recently-turned 20-year old will reach a rare feat that few players, let alone European players, ever will - the opportunity to play in two Memorial Cups.
Two summers ago, Mario Bliznak might have been an after-thought for most Canucks fans. Selected 205th overall in the final round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the same year fans were salivating over the first round selection of Luc Bourdon, it would have been little surprise had Bliznak's name been lost in the shuffle like so many other late-round picks before him.
But as many team officials will attest, amateur scouting today, even in the latter rounds, is much more advanced than it once was. For Bliznak, despite having zero points to his credit during his draft year playing for Dubnica in Slovakia, he managed to impress Canucks brass enough to warrant a selection.
"[What attracted us to Bliznak was] his consistency and his play," said Stan Smyl, the Director of Player Development for the Vancouver Canucks. "He's an all-around, two-way type of player. He can provide you with some offence and he does a great job defensively."
While potential is one thing, having Bliznak play literally in the Canucks' backyard is another. Despite the added pressure of having his draft team breathing down his neck, Bliznak admits he relishes the challenge.
"It's better for me," says Bliznak. "Obviously they watch me more [often]. There's probably a Canucks scout here every game." But if Bliznak felt he was being watched before, he knows that the spotlight on him will be magnified in the coming months.
If playoff experience were measured the same way as points, then Bliznak might be a leading contender for the Bob Clarke Trophy, the WHL's version of the Art Ross Trophy. In his rookie year with the Giants, Bliznak was part of an upstart squad that made an impromptu run to the Memorial Cup. The experience from that run, which Bliznak won't soon forget, is something he hopes will pay off in spades when he makes the jump to professional hockey.
"[Going to the Memorial Cup] helped me a lot with my confidence," believes Bliznak. "Playing against the best junior players and playing almost eight months [in the whole season]."
Stan Smyl, who is a former two-time Memorial Cup Champion, echoes similar thoughts. "Going through each round and getting [to the Memorial Cup] is quite the grind," recalls Smyl of his pursuit of junior hockey's most prestigious trophy. "I think that helps you get into the NHL because of the pressure situations. The farther you go, the more pressure there is. To handle those pressures as a junior player I think helped me a lot taking that next step getting to the NHL."
However, while most major junior hockey players can go their entire careers without even making it to one Memorial Cup tournament, thanks to the Giants hosting the Memorial Cup in May at the Pacific Coliseum, Bliznak has the rare opportunity of playing in two - a feat especially rare given the CHL's import rule which limits non-North American players to just two roster spots on major junior teams.
To put it all in perspective, on the Canucks' current roster, 12 players have been through the CHL major junior program combining for 2036 regular season and 319 playoff games. Of those 12, only two have been to Memorial Cup tournaments: Roberto Luongo appeared in two (1998, '99) while Trevor Linden won the Cup twice prior to being drafted by the Canucks (1987, '88). Linden's accomplishment with the Tigers was so astounding that, in fact, his teams have been inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
PLAYING FOR THE PRIZE
Knowing what successful Memorial Cup runs has done for the careers of his predecessors, Bliznak knows that having a good playoff run this year will go a long ways towards helping fulfill his dream - to suit up alongside those same Canucks that he's had an opportunity to watch many times from the press box this season as an invited guest.
"It's just the first game," said Bliznak following Vancouver's come-from-behind win on Friday night in Game 1 of the WHL's Western Conference Quarter-Final. "[I just try] to play my best every game."
Bliznak on this night however, might be selling himself just a little short. The Trencin, Slovakia native, adorned with a silver hard-hat emblazoned with a Giants logo after being selected the game's first star, had been a force the entire night playing alongside Spencer Machacek and Panthers' prospects Kendall McArdle, scoring a penalty shot goal late in the third period to tie the game allowing the Giants to complete the comeback in overtime.
"I knew I would score," quipped Bliznak to reporters after the game, obviously beaming with confidence.
That confidence, Bliznak hopes, will help him improve on his offensive numbers from last year's playoffs while still maintaining his defensive reliability, a testament to his overall versatility.
Fittingly on Friday night, Bliznak's first point, an assist, came on a powerplay while his penalty-shot effort was due to his aggressive play while short-handed forcing the Bruins defenceman to haul him down on a breakaway. But while it may be easy for Bliznak to think ahead to the Memorial Cup in May or even suiting up for the Canucks next fall, his sole focus right now is on helping the Giants get to the Memorial Cup through the front door.
"We know we're going to the Memorial Cup but we want to win every series," proclaimed Bliznak. "It's important for us to focus on this series."
Canucks fans and brass alike will focus just as intently on Mario.
The Vancouver Giants are tied 1-1 in the WHL's Western Conference Quarter Finals with the Chilliwack Bruins and will continue their push to the Memorial Cup on Tuesday, March 27th in Game 3 at the Prospera Centre in Chilliwack. The Giants will host the Memorial Cup at the Pacific Coliseum from May 18-27th.