Canucks' Bieksa steps up as leader

BOSTON -- He's a dark-horse candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy and one of the team's leaders.

And he was involved in every trade rumor possible last summer.

Good thing the Vancouver Canucks held on to Kevin Bieksa or they likely wouldn't be here today, one win away from a Stanley Cup.

Big hit, clutch goal, key pass, blocked shot? Bieksa has done it all in these playoffs. Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, in our mind, is a slam dunk right now for the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, but somewhere in the conversation of the four to five players in contention has to be Bieksa.

"He's been so good for us," teammate Alex Burrows said Sunday. "He's a really strong guy, competes really hard, he prepares himself the right way. He's also a really good guy in the locker room. Guys enjoy being around him. He's a great teammate. And we know he's always going to be there for us. He can do it all on the ice. He's a complete package."

A year ago, injuries limited Bieksa's effectiveness. And after the Canucks traded for Keith Ballard and signed Dan Hamhuis last summer, the speculation began on whom would be dealt from the overcrowded blue line. Then Sami Salo ripped his Achilles' heel in mid-July and solved the cap issues for the Canucks, who put the Finnish veteran on injured reserve.

Still, the trade rumors were persistent all summer long.

"It's something that earlier in your career maybe you're not as good dealing with it," Bieksa said Sunday. "It hits home a bit more. But as you get older and go through it more like I have, you don't worry about it a whole lot. You just take care of the things you can control, and that's what I've done the last few years."

Other clubs were calling about Bieksa because they believed the Canucks would need to move someone, spurring the rumors.

"There was speculation that we were going to move him," assistant GM Laurence Gilman told ESPN.com on Sunday. "But realistically as an organization, while you're always looking at your options, we never really contemplated moving him at any time. I think there was a perception out there that we weren't getting value for his salary. That's probably what spurred it. But we knew to be successful in the playoffs you need to have eight to nine defensemen, and it was going to be incumbent upon us to manage our cap plan over the year so that we could accommodate those defensemen."

GM Mike Gillis told ESPN.com Sunday that in fact he met with Bieksa last summer in Toronto and reassured him he wouldn't be moved despite all the trade speculation.

"It probably didn't bother Kevin at all, but it sure bothered me," Bieksa's father, Al Bieksa, told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I knew how much Kevin wanted to stay in Vancouver. I was reading all the newspapers, and I was on the Internet all the time. But it worked out for the best."

Now Dad is on pins and needles for a different reason. Al Bieksa, who works for the Ontario Federation of Labour, can't make it to Boston for Game 6 because he has a speaking engagement at a workers' conference in Southern Ontario. But he'll certainly be watching on TV, and he's beside himself that his son is one win away from the ultimate in hockey.

"I try not to think about it too much, because I don't want to jinx it too much," said Al Bieksa. "But I know if it happens, it's going to be hard to hold back the tears when we see Kevin with his hands on the Cup."

The impact Al Bieksa has had on his son is clear as day.

Kevin Bieksa isn't shy about the fisticuffs, as he most recently demonstrated when he cleaned Patrick Marleau's clock in a tussle during the Western Conference finals.

"He comes by it honestly," said Al Bieksa.

Dad, who goes by the nickname Big Al, was a tough customer when he played men's hockey in a league full of steel workers in the Hamilton, Ontario, area.

"Yeah, he was a brawler," Kevin Bieksa smiled. "It was a rough league. Stelco [steel company] funded the league. There was full contact and fighting in that league. I'm sure a lot of employees missed a lot of days of work. But it was entertaining for us to go watch."

Big Al says Kevin and his two brothers (who will be here for Game 6) would come and watch him play when Mom had to work.

"They always talk about how they enjoyed that, but it wasn't always great when Dad got into a fight and sometimes people came down to the dressing room to challenge Dad," Al Bieksa said. "But for the most part, they saw just good, tough hockey."

"Like any Canadian boy growing up, I got into the game because of my dad and my brothers," said Kevin Bieksa. "We all grew up together playing. We spent our childhood at the rink and that was life for us."

At the rink or on the street, it was hockey, hockey, hockey. Monday night here at TD Garden, Bieksa will get to play in the kind of game he dreamed about growing up on the streets of Grimsby, Ontario.

"Probably every other night as a kid," Bieksa said. "Playing road hockey in the winter, hitting each other in the snowbanks, we pretended we were playing in the Stanley Cup finals. I think most kids were like that. This is definitely a dream to be in the finals."

Business decisions can wait. Bieksa, 29, is an unrestricted free agent July 1, and you can bet he'll be getting a raise on the $3.75 million salary he made on his current three-year deal.

Is he hoping to re-sign with the Canucks?

"Hoping to win tomorrow," smiled Bieksa.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.