Burrows started small before Stanley Cup charge

The Stanley Cup finals never seemed farther away than when Alex

Burrows skated in half-empty Southern rinks for something called

the Greenville Grrrowl, making $425 a week and wondering whether he

should go back to school.

Burrows spent his first two seasons in pro hockey riding buses

in the ECHL, living on that meager paycheck and wondering if he’d

ever get a break.

Seven years later, he’s contending for the Conn Smythe Trophy as

an essential part of the Vancouver Canucks’ run at their first

championship, skating on a line with the Sedin twins. After taking

a circuitous route to the NHL, Burrows is dominating Stanley Cup

headlines with his stick and his mouth.

”I wasn’t the guy that anybody picked to be here, but I love

being a part of this team,” Burrows said. ”The way I got here

just makes you work harder than the next guy. Every day you get,

you have to get better.”

Burrows put an indelible mark on the first two games against

Boston – although luckily for him, his teeth didn’t leave a mark on

Patrice Bergeron’s finger.

In Game 1, he drew the Bruins’ ire by appearing to bite

Bergeron, but he wasn’t suspended when the league couldn’t find

evidence he bit down. Burrows then decided Game 2 with three

points, including the winning overtime goal on a wraparound that

will live for decades in Canucks history.

Burrows’ humble hockey beginnings instilled him with an inner

drive that surfaces with ferocious work in practice, dirty work

during games, and even the occasional misbehavior. The Bruins were

still talking indignantly about Burrows’ bite five days after it

happened, but players from both teams respect Burrows’ tenacity and

gamesmanship.

”He works harder than anybody,” Vancouver defenseman Kevin

Bieksa said. ”He’s gotten better every year he’s been with this

team. He’s matured into a player who’s really a key to our team. I

remember him talking about how he had to have a really good year in

the (ECHL) just to get a chance at the next level, and he’s been

cashing in every opportunity.”

Burrows wasn’t drafted by an NHL club, and he didn’t even make

it to the highest level of junior hockey until a year after he was

draft-eligible. When he left the Quebec junior league’s Shawinigan

Cataractes in 2002, he ended up in the ECHL, hockey’s equivalent of

a Double-A minor league.

He played for Greenville, Baton Rouge and Columbia in the ECHL

while also suiting up for the Montreal Red Lite, a ball hockey

team. Burrows even played for Canada’s national ball hockey team –

yes, there is such a thing – and was considered the nation’s top

player in the street-hockey offshoot of the icy national sport.

”There’s a lot of ups and downs in a pro career,” Burrows

said. ”After that second year in the ECHL, I remember thinking I

probably should go back to school. Making $425 wasn’t covering all

my expenses. But I stuck with it. I didn’t know why sometimes, but

I did, and I got a chance.”

Burrows used the year-round training in ball hockey to improve

his mental approach to hockey, and his conditioning got better from

all the running. He eventually caught the Vancouver organization’s

attention with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and he made his NHL debut

at 24.

He was a fourth-liner and a penalty-killer early on, tirelessly

blocking shots and messing with the opposition’s top players. When

he got the chance to skate with the Sedin twins on their top line

after the All-Star break in February 2009, his toughness around the

net and sharpness on rebounds proved to be a brilliant complement

to their playmaking skills.

”Just watching them play, I’ve learned a lot,” Burrows said.

”They don’t beat people with strength or speed. They do it with

smarts and good passing and a good mental game. I listen to what

they have to say, and I try to help.”

Burrows scored 28 goals in the 2008-09 season and got 35 last

year – while also racking up more than 120 penalty minutes for the

third straight year. No Bruins fans will be surprised to learn

Burrows has a long history of bad behavior, such as punching

Edmonton enforcer Zack Stortini while he sat on the bench a few

years.

”I don’t think he tries to take advantage of anybody,” said

captain Henrik Sedin, who refers to Burrows as ”the other

brother.”

”I just think he plays an aggressive game,” Henrik Sedin

added. ”That’s the way he got into this league, and that’s the way

he’s always been. He’s going to do anything he can to help his team

win.”

Burrows already is in the Canadian Ball Hockey Association’s

Hall of Fame, but he has been essential to the Canucks in this

so-far charmed postseason run – and he’s pushing his way into the

Conn Smythe discussion as playoff MVP.

Burrows’ life is coming together off the ice as well: One day

after he scored the winning overtime goal in Game 7 against the

defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, his daughter, Victoria, was

born.

”It’s been a great season and a great playoff for me,” Burrows

said. ”I just want to finish it the right way, to keep giving the

right effort until it’s all over. You never know when you’ll get a

chance to do this again.”