From Slovakia, With Love
At the start of the WHL campaign not many publications were writing about Mario Bliznak, but by the end he was one of the most recognized and written-about players on a star-studded Giants squad that captured the franchise's first ever CHL Championship on Sunday, a victory which was aided thanks to a goal and an assist from Vancouver's own Super Mario.
The young Slovakian export capped off a season that saw him rise from the 3rd and 4th lines of a Vancouver team, right to the very top of the depth chart, proving that a defensive forward can be just as valuable as an offensive one. And after his performance this post-season, and throughout the tourney, he is no longer the player whose name resembles a winter tire, but rather a player whose meteoric rise, and commitment to defensive excellence may be the reason he will be able to realize his dream. A path which is not usually taken by many NHL regulars.
At the beginning of the WHL season, every team knew that Mario was a top-faceoff man and strong fore-checker. However, the opponents also knew his offensive talents were not going to be feared, and as such he was not given the proper attention by opponents. But after the acquisition of Wacey Rabbit and Kenndal McArdle, Bliznak was shuffled around the lineup and eventually found a home with the likes of Lucic, Repik, and Machacek, his offensive talents didn't exactly flourish, but he was able to aid the players on his left and right wing in other ways.
Great size was not a blessing for Mario, (6'0" 185 lbs.) but he used what he was given well, he was a tenacious player down low along the boards and in the corners, and this skill allowed him to open up some space for the other players, often drawing a defender or two down low which opened up a Milan Lucic one-timer in the slot. Thus he was able to show the junior hockey world that in order to be a good player, the neat and pretty cross-ice passes aren't needed, that you can be just as effective in the trench as you can anywhere else, just like in the NHL. The entire Giants system seemed to be reified in Bliznak, his work ethic and commitment to a system lead the way for the more finesse players, and soon grit could be found just as much on Michal Repik's face as it was Garet Hunt's.
This mindset made Mario a very efficient, valuable player in the playoffs, one of those surprising role players every team needs to make a deep run, a player willing to play unselfishly and assume any role given to him. And with the Memorial Cup now in his back pocket, Mario is breaking down the idea that in order to be an regular NHL'er, even a 4th liner, you have to put up rather large numbers in the major junior leagues, and instead, he's forging the way for players to realize that stopping the opponent from scoring goals, is just as important and scoring them yourself.
After all, what's so wrong with making a concerted effort to improve your defensive capabilities in the junior leagues, so that one day when you're given an opportunity to breakout into the NHL, you're all ready to go up against the other team's top players?
Nothing's wrong with that . . . just ask Samuel Pahlsson. He was also a 7th round selection, and he also never put up huge offensive numbers, as a rookie, he made a decision to do whatever it took to be part of a successful team, and make a concerted effort on his own end. And how will this season end for Pahlsson? Possibly with a Selke Trophy, and a Stanley Cup ring.
You'd be challenged to find a Stanley Cup winning team that didn't have a few of these kinds of players in their lineup, let alone an entire line like the 2006/07 Anaheim Ducks.
The 4th liners, the checkers, the grinders, the unselfish ones, the forgotten ones . . . they are the foundations on which many great championship teams have been built, and the Giants were witness to that on Sunday. How long until the Canucks are also witness to it? Well, with players like Bliznak rising up the ranks . . . hopefully not too long at all.