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The most pleasant surprise

Tuesday, 21.07.2009 / 12:41 PM / Features
By Farhan Devji
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The most pleasant surprise
Manitoba Moose General Manager Craig Heisinger is almost never wrong.

After discovering numerous undrafted gems, namely Alex Burrows and Rick Rypien, and recently being named the winner of the James C. Hendy Memorial Award as the outstanding executive in the American Hockey League for 2008-09, it’s safe to say that Heisinger’s assessment of players is usually spot on. But with Mario Bliznak, the Moose GM was admittedly off the mark.

“I don’t want to speak for anyone else but I don’t think as a group we thought he’d be able to compete in the American Hockey League in his first year out of junior, if ever,” said Heisinger. “He unequivocally proved me wrong and showed some promise that he may be able to compete at the next level. He was the most pleasant surprise on our team. ”

Just as Heisinger was pleased with Bliznak’s play, the Canucks seventh round draft-pick in 2005 was also happy with his first season playing professional hockey.

“My first professional season was very good, especially the first half of the season,” said Bliznak, who started training two weeks ago in his hometown of Trencin, Slovakia. “The second half wasn’t that good, but in the playoffs it was great again. The coach used me in all kinds of different situations, like in key face-offs, on the penalty kill, the checking line and stuff like that.”

Heisinger knew that Bliznak had been regarded as a strong defensive forward, but wasn’t sure if his success in junior would translate to the AHL.

“Well that seemed to be what everyone said, that he played really well defensively. We just weren’t convinced that he could do it at this level. But he proved that he could. He wound up being a reliable, third line checking center who we could count on.”

Bliznak spent much of the season playing alongside grizzled veteran and three-time Stanley Cup champion Mike Keane. And by all accounts, this eased his transition to professional hockey and did wonders for his progression.

“Playing with Mike was great; I learned a lot from him,” said Bliznak when asked of the 42 year-old Moose captain. “The biggest thing was just to have the focus on every shift. You can’t take a shift off, because your next shift has to be your best shift. You can’t be scared to make a mistake, but when you do, learn from it and move on.”

Although this was his first season playing professional hockey, it wasn’t in his first in North America. Bliznak played three full seasons with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League before turning pro, and he remains pleased with his decision to leave home at a young age.

“I think it helped me a lot. I played a lot of important games for the Giants and had a great coaching staff there. There are a lot of good players playing in Slovakia but it’s not that quick hockey, and there is not that much body contact. I don’t think I would have been that ready for North American hockey if I [stayed] in Slovakia.”

In his final season with the Giants, Bliznak proved that he could also provide an offensive punch, putting up 51 points in 67 regular season games. In his rookie season with the Moose, Bliznak posted 16 points in 64 regular season games - second amongst rookies on the team behind Raymond Sawada, who played 10 regular season games with Iowa in 07-08. According to Heisinger, Bliznak’s potential would increase significantly if he starts thinking more offence.

“That’s his role as a professional player and if he could provide some offence he could become a very effective one,” said Heisinger when asked of Bliznak’s third line checking center duties.

“Going forward, for him to have success, he’s going to need to get out of that strictly defensive mode and chip in offensively. He has to get into the mindset that he can produce offensively and he’s going to have to do more of that.”

Perhaps Manitoba’s last playoff game, in which Bliznak scored the lone Moose goal, is a sign of things to come. Bliznak says that the Moose’ extended playoff run, in which they were defeated by the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Final, was an invaluable experience.

“It was great, an unreal feeling. The playoffs are always best time of the year. You never want to lose, but when you do, then you realize how close you were, and just couldn’t finish. You never want to see the other team take the Cup in front your home crowd. It was really disappointing, but at the same time, it was a great experience what we went through, and it can make us stronger.”

With the off-season departures of key Moose forwards Jason Jaffray and Jason Krog, Bliznak will be relied upon even more next season. However, according to Heisinger, his second year may prove to be more challenging than his first.

“He made some great strides in his first year but I would say his second year is going to be very challenging for him because expectations are three hundred percent what they were last year,” said the Moose GM.

Bliznak realizes he’ll be back in Manitoba next year and hopes to put together a strong sophomore season; however at the same time, he’s looking forward to the prospect of returning to Vancouver.

“I want to have a great camp in Vancouver, a good season in Manitoba, and hopefully get some call-ups for a couple games in Vancouver.”

At this rate, who’s to say Bliznak won’t reach his goals? Heisinger certainly isn’t about to discount him a second time.

“That’s really up to him. He made some strides this year that were very impressive, but whether he can take that to the next level, that part’s up to him.”

Farhan Devji is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. For more of his work, visit http://www.farhandevji.com.