Hockey fans need more of Kevin Bieksa. The former Canuck was a revelation on Hockey Night in Canada during the playoffs and has to be a big part of Sportsnet’s plans for the future.
"I told myself when I stopped playing that I wasn't going to say no to anything," said Bieksa in a Wednesday appearance on Sportsnet 650. "I was going to give everything a try once to see what I liked."
Fans have to hope now that his work on the Hockey Night in Canada panel wasn't just a one-time thing. Fortunately, he seemed to like it a lot.
"It doesn't feel like work when you go in there, it's fun," he said. "You sit down, you watch the game with these people, you talk hockey, you argue, you chirp, you dissect the game."
Even though he was a relative rookie, Bieksa was a natural on-air. The playoffs is an opportunity for players to break out and make a name for themselves, but arguably the biggest breakout star was Bieksa. He gave hockey fans a reason to tune in during intermissions, a necessity with the departure of a big personality like Don Cherry.
Whatever you might think of Cherry, his Coach’s Corner segments were still popular when he was let go by Sportsnet after his xenophobic comments last November. Hockey Night in Canada needed a big personality to catch eyes and ears — Brian Burke’s solemn monotone wasn’t cutting it — and they found that personality in Bieksa.
Canucks fans have been aware of Bieksa’s personality for years. He showed great chemistry with Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy in intermission and post-game interviews and proved just as adept with a mic in his hand. His short-lived podcast with Ryan Kesler was a delight, providing insights and entertainment in equal measure. His speech at Daniel and Henrik Sedin's jersey retirement was incredible, seemingly entirely off the cuff.
It was no surprise that he ended up on air and was an immediate hit.
The intermission segments during the Stanley Cup Playoffs could have been incredibly awkward, since some people were broadcasting from their homes and it featured two rookies in Bieksa and Anthony Stewart. Bieksa deserves a lot of credit for cutting through any potential awkwardness with his sense of humour, riffing with each member of the panel to make for a lively viewing experience.
If it was all personality, however, it wouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Bieksa backs up his personality with a breadth of knowledge about the game that surpasses anything else we’ve seen on Hockey Night in Canada in recent years.
It might have something to do with the types of former players that end up doing commentary in hockey.
In basketball, two of the greatest players of all-time, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, break down games for TNT. Football has great quarterbacks like Tony Romo and Troy Aikman sharing their exceptional knowledge of the game.
For whatever reason, hockey doesn’t have former stars doing commentary, with the exception of Cassie Campbell, one of the all-time greats. More often, hockey commentators are former role players, like Nick Kypreos and PJ Stock, or journeyman goaltenders, like Greg Millen or John Garrett.
Perhaps that’s why there’s always been so much emphasis on the intangibles that players bring to a locker room or the importance of fights in hockey: those are often what depth role players bring to their team.
There are exceptions, of course. Kelly Hrudey was a long-time starter in the NHL and is at his best away from a desk when he can demonstrate a goaltending technique or break down a play with a telestrator. Former players of all types, not to mention non-players can certainly have insights into the game. But it doesn’t hurt to have played and understood the game at a high level.
While Bieksa wasn’t a star in the NHL to the same extent as Shaq or Aitken in their sports, he was still a legitimate top-four defenceman on some very good teams. He put up 40+ points in two separate seasons and was a key shutdown defenceman on the 2010-11 Canucks with Dan Hamhuis.
Most importantly, Bieksa was a very smart player with a great head for the game, understanding the “why” behind the “how.” That’s made him ideal for breaking down small details of the game, particularly on the defensive end, that are missed by the average hockey fan.
That doesn’t mean those details are complicated, because they’re generally fairly simple. Or, perhaps they seem simple because of the way Bieksa explains them. Take this explanation of taking away the far side of the net while penalty killing.
This isn’t a complicated concept — defencemen should line up their shot block to take away the far side of the net so that your goaltender only has to worry about the short side — but it’s clearly explained with well-chosen clips. If a fan hasn’t thought about this particular detail of the game before, now they’re better-informed and can look for that detail in the future.
Another short segment he did at the end of the playoffs was another great example of clearly explaining a simple concept that doesn’t get a lot of attention: deception.
It’s simple enough to understand. It’s not enough just to make a good pass; there needs to be some deception prior to the pass as well. That deception — opening up the stick to fake a pass, making a quick weight shift to sell that you’re skating in the opposite direction, or something as simple as a head fake — opens up passing lanes or gives your teammates more time with the puck after your pass.
Deception is something that you see emphasized in professional scouting reports of prospects and is an important indicator that a prospect is going to be able to translate their game to the NHL, where those simple fakes are frequently the difference between having enough time with the puck to make a play and getting run over by a forechecker. Despite its importance, however, you don’t see that detail discussed much on a broadcast so that a casual fan can gain a deeper understanding of the game.
"The video that I've watched the last 15-20 years has been critical video, looking at details, looking at systems, looking at mistakes and breakdowns, so that's the way that I watch the game naturally," said Bieksa. "That really helped me, but also coaching — having an academy and coaching minor hockey for the last 6-7 years — has also really helped me explain things to the viewer."
Now hockey fans have to hope he'll be explaining things on Hockey Night in Canada for years to come.