Enforcer? Prankster? Humanitarian? Ducks’ defenseman Kevin Bieksa fits all categories
There was the LMFAO lyric slipped into one intermission interview—shots! shots! shots! shots! shots! shots!—and the $300 bet some Vancouver teammates made that he couldn’t drop “milk hotdogs” into another postgame, which really was just wasted money from the start. How about during the 2012 playoffs, when a reporter mistook the defenseman for winger Ryan Kesler, so Bieksa imitated him for the entire chat? Or when Vernon Fiddler mocked his “angry”—and, upon further review, rather Robert De Niro-ish—in-game face, infecting Canucks coach Alain Vigneualt with a serious case of the giggles on the bench?
One last choice arrived Sept. 27 at Honda Center, during Anaheim’s preseason opener against Arizona. Out of the lineup, Bieksa disguised himself as a member of the Ducks’ ice crew and spent the night shoveling. He bumped into players, told the Coyotes that their mascot was his favorite animal, and swiped a Gatorade bottle from an Anaheim defenseman’s hands. Later, while posing for a picture with some players, he also grabbed a solid handful of goalie John Gibson’s haunch.
“It was brought to me a week before,” Bieksa explains. “I was skeptical at first, because I thought, this is an NHL preseason game, there are young kids fighting for jobs, guys on [tryouts], and here I am dressed up in a mustache and a fat suit, making a mockery out of the game. And between periods running into guys with shovels, grabbing water bottles. I was leery, but once I was out there, it was too much fun to pass up.”
Might as well stitch that last part into a quilt. Every locker room harbors its jokesters, certain comedians are known throughout the NHL, but few go public with their humor quite like Bieksa. “I think there are funnier guys in the NHL than is perceived, but the problem is not all of them are comfortable on camera,” he says. “There’s this old-school train of thought that you have to act professional at all times, that you have to act serious and give clichéd answers. Unfortunately I’m very comfortable and I just say what comes to mind.”
Say …do … it all taps into the same impulse. Bieksa grew up in Ontario with two brothers, who demanded quick thinking and thick skin from one another. He spent four years at Bowling Green, working jokes into group presentations for his finance major. Even right now, after a late-October practice in Philadelphia, Bieksa awaits an interview at his stall sans pants, jockstrap over compression shorts, doing the USA Today crossword puzzle.
“Some guys are just more shy,” he says, pointing across the room, because even mid-interview no one is safe. “Corey Perry is sitting there, joking around right now, but he’s the shiest guy when you get a camera in front of him. And some guys are just like that. It’s too bad you can’t catch the real personality.”
So, the real personality of Kevin Bieksa. As a former road roommate and teammate with the Canucks, reunited in Anaheim after Bieksa was traded in June 2015, Kesler explains it like this: “Pretty soft teddy bear on the inside. We all know that. He just snaps once in a while. He’s like a teddy bear that turns into a grizzly bear.”
To this end, two particular nicknames befitting the image have latched onto Bieksa over his 12 NHL seasons: Juice and Sheriff. The latter, Canucks forward Alex Burrows says, “because he patrols the ice.” And the former …“I always liked to bug him that it was because he was so big and jacked up, you better watch out for testing,” says Brendan Morrison, another ex-Canuck. “Always bench press and curls. Every day’s bicep day. He’d fit in perfect in Anaheim with all those beaches there.”
Indeed, it wouldn’t be fair if teammates couldn’t volley back barbs, which if not aimed at Bieksa’s freakish physique target his 35-and-counting years of existence. (“Freaking old goat, eh?” Morrison says. “He’s a dinosaur now.”) During training camp, for instance, someone asked Bieksa if the only active NHL player older than him was Jaromir Jagr, age 44. “So I made a list on the whiteboard on the practice facility of who in the league I knew who was older than me, and I came up with at least 20 guys,” Bieksa says.
Among just defensemen, he is actually the 13th-oldest to appear this season, and through Wednesday was the only one among that group lacking a point, no longer seeming like the 30-assist candidate he was with Vancouver. Ten games into coach Randy Carlyle’s first year of his second tour with the Ducks (4–4–2), though, Bieksa ranks fourth in average ice time (20:36) and individual shots on goal (23). The no-move clause on his two-year, $8 million contract all but ensures he’ll stay in Anaheim through ‘17-18. He also remains in rippling shape, still called Juice after all.
“I’m not even close to done in this league,” Bieksa says. “We’ll see. I’ve got two years, then if the body’s feeling good, I’d like to keep going as long as I can. When I first got into the league, I was told that you stay in the league until they kick you out. So they haven’t kicked me out yet.”
With all the pranks Bieksa has performed over the years, the prosecution could assemble quite the case. “He’s got a large repertoire of stuff that the can pull out,” says Flyers forward Dale Weise, Some of the known favorites: filling shower towels with shaving cream, tornado-ing hotel rooms into oblivion, texting players from a front-office official’s phone, and executing what are known as “leaners”—in other words, filling a garbage can with water, propping it against someone’s door, knocking, and bolting.
Here, Burrows would like to contribute a favorite story. The Canucks were staying overnight in Chicago after playing the Blackhawks, scheduled to bus to the airport around dawn. That morning, Bieksa called Burrows’ room, complaining of soreness from a blocked shot and asking that Burrows bring him ice. “I got some ice bags ready, go and knock on his door,” Burrows recalls. “I didn’t know that was the neighbor’s room he gave me.” Neighbors, as evidenced by the furious naked man who answered, who had been engaging in some rather loud daylight delight.
“Then we go in the lobby to catch the bus and Kevin’s telling this story about how he’s looking at me knock on the door,” Burrows says. “Then the guy stormed out of the elevator. He wanted to complain, get the manager, I don't know to do what, but he wanted to fight me because he thought I was being rude, bringing him some ice bags. Kevin stepped in, told him to chill out, it’s just a joke. He settled everything.”
Now Burrows would like to tell another story, far more serious this time. In the years leading to Rick Rypien’s suicide on Aug. 15, 2011, the Sheriff stood at his close friend’s side. He lent an ear when Rypien disclosed his clinical depression before training camp in 2008, and sped to Rypien’s house in an Alberta snowstorm later that year when the then Canucks forward disappeared from the grid. Eventually, Bieksa and his wife asked Rypien to move into their home.
“They kept it real quiet,” Burrows. “No one really knew that Rick was living with Kevin. Even when we went on road trips, Rick was staying back with his family. Kevin’s always been someone who wanted to make sure his teammates were taken care of. Rick’s illness got the best of him, but Kevin was always there for him, for his brothers, for his friends.”
Rypien’s death “took a piece of him with him,” says Bieksa’s agent, Kurt Overhardt. But, true to form, Bieksa since became an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, joining a group called Mindcheck.ca and speaking to an audience at BC Children’s Hospital. When the Canucks moved Bieksa to Anaheim for a second-rounder, Burrows called to ask about assuming his role with the locally based Mindcheck. It was an obvious yes.
Tornadoes and leaners notwithstanding, Bieksa’s former and current teammates all speak about him with similar respect as Burrows. “He was such a well-respected leader but so funny at the same time,” Weise says. “He knew when to make a joke, when to keep things light, and he knew when to be serious. He toed that line pretty well. There’s very few guys who can do that and be respected. He’s one of them.”
Finally, Burrows has one more topic to discuss. “I know Kesler did SI and he was naked in one of your magazines,” he says. I thought that’s what Kevin wanted to do, get naked in the magazine. Is that what he wants to do?”
Here, Burrows is reminded that Kesler actually bared all for ESPN The Magazine, and not Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. The dream barely fades.
“Well, he could still do a naked picture,” Burrows says. “I’m sure he’d be up for that.”