Juice, there it is: An extensive look back at the life and career of Kevin Bieksa
Photo credit:(Bob Frid/Icon SMI)
1 year ago
Unofficially, Kevin Bieksa has been retired since the end of 2018, when he helped lead Team Canada to a second-place finish at the Spengler Cup.
Officially, he’ll retire tonight as a Vancouver Canuck.
The plan for Bieksa to sign a one-day contract with the club that drafted him had been in the works since the 2019-20 season, but was put off as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea was not his own. You can thank his father, Al Bieksa, for Kevin’s decision to return to Vancouver to officially cap off his professional hockey career. Al is currently the President of the United Steelworkers International Union, and has a decades-long history working in organized labour, so it’s fitting that he would be the driving force behind a ceremony that will pay tribute to one of the hardest-working players in franchise history.
As the Canucks get set to honour Bieksa tonight, we’ve decided to honour him as well by taking a look back at a life and career as remarkable as that of any player to ever don the uniform.
Bieksa grew up in Grimsby, Ontario playing minor hockey for the Jr. Peach Kings program before eventually earning a spot with the Jr. A Burlington Cougars towards the end of the 1997-98 season. He was eventually drafted by Don Cherry, the part-owner and general manager of the Mississauga IceDogs in the 17th round of the 1998 OHL draft. While Bieksa would decline the opportunity to play for the IceDogs to retain his NCAA eligibility, he remained a favourite of Cherry’s throughout his NHL career, despite Cherry’s refusal to ever pronounce his name correctly.
After completing Junior A, he attended Bowling Green State University, where he played for the Falcons of the CCHA, a college athletic conference that participates in the NCAA’s Division 1. In his freshman year, he helped the Falcons become the lowest-seeded team in league history to advance to the CCHA semifinals, where he would score the Falcons’ lone goal against future teammate Ryan Miller in a 2-1 loss to Michigan State.
After being drafted by the Canucks in the 5th round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Bieksa returned to Bowling Green to complete his degree in Finance. He would eventually be named an alternate captain and receive the team award for Defensive Player of the Year in 2003. He was also the recipient of the inaugural Grinder of the Year award, as chosen by the team’s fans.
In his senior year, he earned an honourable mention to the All-CCHA Team and the Falcons’ award for best player as chosen by the coaches, as well as his second consecutive honourable mention as a CCHA All-Academic, graduating with a very respectable 3.45 GPA.
As you might expect from a player of Bieksa’s academic standing, his pro career began with a bare-knuckle boxing match in an Earl’s parking lot in Winnipeg, Manitoba. While attending camp on a PTO with the Canucks then-AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, Bieksa inadvertently drew the ire of teammate Fedor Fedorov. He relayed the full story during a podcast appearance in 2020:*
“There was an afternoon game at the Winnipeg arena… we go to the Earl’s right after the game… guys start drinking, having a good time. Fast forward to midnight now, I’m nervous about drinking [because] I’m a college guy, just got called up, and I haven’t played a game yet.
“I’m sitting with Sergei Fedorov’s brother Fedor, who was this big six-foot-four 230-pound Russian who had all the skill in the world and should have been an unbelievable NHLer, but had a little bit of an attitude issue. So I’m sitting with him and his billet dad and his billet brother.*
“I’m playing with my straw, and it flies out of my thing and hits this other little Russian in the back. He turns around, I’m laughing, it’s a big misunderstanding. He comes over and starts saying, ‘what the [expletive]?’ and I go, ‘relax, man, it was an accident.’”*
The other Russian (likely Kirill Koltsov, who was the only other Russian on the team’s official roster at the time) continued to pester him until Bieksa eventually threatened to “knock [him] out”:
“Fedorov grabs my shirt and he goes, ‘don’t say that’, and I smack his arm off me and I say ‘get your [expletive] hand off of me’. He looks at me, he gets up and he says ‘let’s go outside’. He gets up and goes outside, it’s minus-20, he’s in a T-shirt. Everyone else around me is like ‘he’s just a hothead, Kev, don’t worry about him’. I had the biggest chip on my shoulder when I was that age so I was like, ‘nah, I’m gonna go see what’s going on.’
“So I go outside and he’s bouncin’ around, saying, “you don’t talk to Russians that way”. So I square off with him, and then the other little Russian comes out, so now I’m fighting both of them. So I square off with the big boy and then I go in to throw a punch and I get leg kicked by the little guy.
“I got this little gnat leg kicking me, so I’m like, ‘OK, I’m gonna forget about him and concentrate on the big guy’. I come in, I throw a sloppy one, and I miss him. He pops me, and then eat another leg kick again. I’m getting so mad inside, like I just wanna murder somebody. So then finally I connected, dropped him, [and there’s a] puddle of blood in the white snow.”*
*quotes condensed and edited for clarity
Bieksa expected to be sent home after the incident, but then-Canucks GM Brian Burke had a different outlook:
“Send him home? I said, ‘We’re gonna sign him tomorrow!’”
The decision proved to be a good one, as Bieksa would go on to set a team record for points by a defenceman with 39 the following season, en route to being named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. It was around this time that teammate Alex Auld began to call him “Juice”, a nickname that would follow him for the rest of his career despite his repeated cageyness about its origin.
Bieksa struggled with injuries the following season, which he split between the Canucks and Moose, before earning a full-time spot with the Canucks in 2006-07. He had a dazzling sophomore campaign, scoring his first NHL goal against Sharks goaltender Vesa Toskala and eventually leading all Canucks defencemen in points as the Canucks once again qualified for the playoffs after missing the previous season.
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Bieksa’s first NHL playoff game came in the form of an electrifying quadruple-overtime win over the Dallas Stars in which he played a whopping 55 minutes.
Over the next nine years, Bieksa became a mainstay in the Canucks top-four, playing a pivotal role in leading the Canucks to consecutive President’s Trophy wins and making up half of one of the best defensive pairings in team history alongside Dan Hamhuis. He also scored one of the most famous goals by a Canuck, a double-overtime winner against the San Jose Sharks that punched Vancouver’s ticket to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. (And also birthed the nickname of one of CA’s most beloved writers)
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Sadly, that was the closest Bieksa would ever get to being a Stanley Cup champion, as the team quickly declined and eventually crawled into the deep, dark pit it has mostly remained in ever since. But to his credit, he never stopped fighting, and never stopped believing in his teammates or the organization he’d called home since finishing college. He expressed that fighting spirit in a March 2014 appearance on Hockey Night in Canada:
“I’m a Canuck at heart and I’m going down with the ship. I’ll be here until they throw me out of here. I still believe in this team and this group. And I still think we can win,” Bieksa said at the time.
While it seems clear that Bieksa was just trying to express solidarity with his teammates and a love for the organization he’d grown up in, he also inadvertently implied something that many observers had been saying about the team for the last few months: the Canucks were sinking, fast. The team’s aging expensive core was deteriorating rapidly, and required major surgery if the team wanted to be competitive again. Bieksa would not get his wish. He was traded to the Anaheim Ducks on June 30th, 2015; where he would play out the remainder of his career. The ship would have to go down without him.
In addition to being one of the NHL’s toughest defencemen, Bieksa also earned a reputation as one of the NHL’s premiere pranksters, executing numerous spoofs and goofs during his stints in Vancouver and Anaheim. His comedic exploits are too numerous to count, but they include quoting the LMFAO/Lil Jon hit “Shots” during an in-game interview with Scott Oake, filling in as a weatherman for Global News, disguising himself as a security guard to fool his teammates in Anaheim, being interviewed by Ryan Kesler for a Ducks-themed rip-off of Zach Galifiniakis’ Between Two Ferns, and most infamously, impersonating Kesler in a postgame interview with FOX Sports’ Mike Dunsmore in 2012.
Dunsmore approached Bieksa after the Canucks’ win in game 4 of the 2012 Western Conference Quarterfinals and mistook him for Kesler. Rather than correcting him, Bieksa pretended to be Kesler over the course of a full three-and-a-half-minute interview in which he leaned heavily into Kesler’s well-documented American patriotism.
“I’ve got a lot of family and friends here, and I won an Olympic medal for this country. I brought them a silver medal. So, you know, they usually give some ovations here…
“Like I said, I’m an American and I like playing in the States. So the fans in Canada are great, but this is where the real hockey fans are, in my opinion. I love the States and this will always be home for me…
We’ll go back to Canada, but I’m sure our crowd won’t be as good there. But, hopefully, we can get back here, where the real crowd is.”
After managing to convince Dunsmore that his teammates called him “Guzzler”, Bieksa-Kesler was asked a question about Kesler’s old college team, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Bieksa-Kesler used the opportunity to rep his old college team instead:
“I love the Buckeyes. The Bowling Green Falcons, I felt, always kind of took it to us. But Ohio State, we’re a good club. We’re definitely (one of the) top three teams in Ohio.”
He also stole the show at the Sedins’ jersey retirement ceremony, giving a long but well-received speech in which he frequently roasted both twins as well as former teammates Alex Burrows and Roberto Luongo.
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While Bieksa usually got the last laugh, there was one incident when an opposing player got the better of him. During a February 26, 2012 game against the Dallas Stars, forward Vernon Fiddler began mimicking Bieksa’s mannerisms to such humourous effect that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault began to laugh so uproariously that he hid behind a clipboard as he tried repeatedly to compose himself.
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But Bieksa also left time for more serious pursuits. In early 2012, he spearheaded the relaunch of Mindcheck.ca, a website dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness that features a quiz users can take to self-check symptoms of depression. Bieksa has also been a frequent guest speaker at Mindcheck events, drawing on his friendship with late teammate Rick Rypien in his speeches.
Bieksa was extremely close with Rypien, who roomed with him during their time with the Moose, and was deeply affected by his suicide during the summer of 2011. Bieksa served as a pallbearer at Rypien’s funeral, and presented Rypien’s family with a game-worn jersey in a pregame ceremony honouring the one-year anniversary of his passing. Bieksa’s advocacy was a precursor to the NHL adopting the Hockey Talks initiative, which continues to this day.
In recent years, he’s endeared himself to Canucks fans as an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, providing a much-needed sense of humour and west coast perspective on an often eastern-dominated panel. It’s been an entertaining role reversal for Bieksa, who frequently exchanged light-hearted barbs with the media and frequently staged practical jokes targeted at Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy.
Bieksa has played a number of roles over the course of his hockey career: player, prankster, puck-mover, podcaster, pugilist, leader, mental health advocate, weatherman, security guard, interviewer, analyst; and to one FOX Sports reporter in the spring of 2012, Ryan Kesler. But tonight’s retirement ceremony will send him off in appropriate fashion, filling the role he was always best suited for: the one of a Canuck.
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