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Article: Bieksa tuning defensive skating with Derek Popke


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For Bieksa, hockey’s a labour of love

Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman Kevin Bieksa practices a drill as skating coach Derek Popke looks on. Matthew Hoekstra phot
— Image Credit: Matthew Hoekstra Photo

Kevin Bieksa appeared in mid-season form earlier this week.

At least the quick wit.

Asked by a newspaper scribe if the off-season drills with renowned local skating instructor Derek Popke were helping his game, he deadpanned “no, not at all.” That was followed by a quick grin and a comprehensive response.

“Of course,” he said. “I’m coming off a couple of hip injuries too so I’ve kind of had to learn how to reinvent my stride so to speak. And with the help of Popper here, done some good things. I felt good last year and I’m feeling strong and ready to go this year.”

Set to begin his 10th NHL season—all with the Vancouver Canucks—Bieksa joined Popke and former Canuck Jason Garrison, traded this summer to the Tampa Bay Lightning, for an intense defencemen-focused workout in Richmond. He began training with Popke two summers ago after being introduced to one of his sessions through Garrison.

“It’s a little bit different than just going out and skating with a bunch of guys, doing some hockey drills and scrimmaging,” Bieksa said.

“You’re coming out here working on position-specific and player-specific things. You’re working on pivots for defencemen, building speed, and crossing over. I really enjoy it. I think working with two players is probably the max, because (Popke) is able to watch both of us doing the same drills, critique us and give us some constructive criticism and some help. I think he has a pretty good understanding of myself by now, from the times I’ve skated with him, and knows my strengths and weaknesses, and he’s not afraid to tell me.”

At 33, Bieksa has firmly established himself as a core blueliner in the NHL, and a player who can also still contribute offensively. But it his strong character that may be even more valued. Making his NHL debut versus the Los Angeles Kings in December 2005, the six-foot-one, 200-pound graduate of Bowling Green State University (where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance during his four years playing for the Falcons) soon became a go-to player and a fan and media favourite. After just his first complete NHL season, Bieksa earned the coveted Babe Pratt Trophy as the Canucks’ top defenceman and has since become a team leader and alternate captain.

In the wake of the passing of his close friend and former Canuck teammate Rick Rypien in 2011, Bieksa has also become a spokesman for mental health.

“I’m trying to carry on my friend’s intent to make a difference for those with mental health issues,” he said. “(Mind Check has gotten amazing support and the Canucks have really rallied around (mental health) too with the Hockey Talks initiative. Before Rick, I had very little experience with (mental health issues). You kind of have to learn about it, especially if you’ve never suffered from it it’s hard to really understand. You talk to friends and people who’ve been through it and it’s a tough disease, and these people battling every day. You see what happened with Robin Williams a few weeks ago. We’re doing the best we can to raise awareness because a lot of kids suffer in silence and are not able to get the help they need. The whole point of Mind Check is to help guide these people to the right channels to get help.”

Growing up in the small town of Grimsby, Ont., located in the Niagara region, Bieksa played many sports and enjoyed them all. He says enjoying the game really is key.

“The reason most guys I’ve seen that make it to the NHL is because they really enjoy the gam,” he said. “My dad never had to force me to go to one practice when I was a kid. I always enjoyed being on the ice. There’s a lot of time to put pressure on yourself, but when you’re a kid coming up have fun and be a sponge and learn from all the people you can all the coaches and skating instructors. There’s a lot of people that you can teach you something.

“I have a son who has been playing organized hockey for three years and I just support him. I teach when I can but don’t force too much on him and make sure he enjoys the game.”

Bieksa believes there are many reasons to participate in multiple sports.

“I get into different sports in the summer. I play a lot more tennis and golf and little bit of baseball,” he said. “ I coach my son in soccer and I’m on field with him a couple times a week. When I was a kid I played every sport. You develop different skills from every sport, whether it be hand-eye co-ordination, foot skills or explosive speed. And you need a break from hockey. My son didn’t play hockey all summer and he’s just rarin’ to go now. You step on the ice when you haven’t been on for a couple of months and all of a sudden you feel different. And you’ve learned new things.”

Bieksa said the greatest difference between when he debuted in the NHL and now is that skating has become even more pronounced.

“It’s a skating league for sure now, especially when they did away with all the obstruction and allowed people to really use their speed. You can’t really slow a guy nowadays,” he said. “Skating is by far the most important thing. There are smaller guys in league now that can skate and you didn’t see that 10 or 15 years ago. Who knows what the future holds and if they’re going to think about going to a bigger ice sheet, which would enhance skating even more. That’s why we’re out here now trying to get better, more efficient and stronger with our skating.”

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