Monday, March 25, 2013

Alex Burrows ... from nowhere, to somewhere

By Larry Wigge

You have a kid who has nothing to lose. Daring and fearless. Never been to the show. He's down a journey in the lower minor leagues, but with hopes to play in the NHL.

Alex Burrows has come a long way from a kid hoping for a hockey career while riding long bus rides, punctuated by stops at places like McDonald's and Subway to help the players stretch their paltry per-diems of $450 per week. And he remembers that all anyone seemed to care about in those places was college football and basketball. A hockey puck was a foreign object.

It was a tough environment in which to chase your NHL dream, especially for a player like Burrows who had been passed up in the NHL draft.

"It was always a dream to play in the NHL and it was really a big dream sometimes with those long bus rides," Burrows said, pointing to stops in the East Coast Hockey League, where he spent one year with the Greenville Grrowl, another year with the Baton Rouge Kingfish and a third with the Columbia Inferno before playing parts of two seasons with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. "You are going to games where there are no scouts and no one really cares about hockey. It's all about college football, college basketball, that's all people really care about. It's tough to get out of there."

It was like a scene from the movie 'Slapshot,' to the Pincourt, Quebec, native.

There was an alternative. Burrows, could have played soccer or competed in national and international tournaments of ball hockey. In 2005, he was named the International Ball Hockey Player of the Year. He has also been inducted into the Canadian and International Ball Hockey Halls of Fame.

But ...

Undrafted out of junior, Burrows had bounced between three ECHL teams and, at 23, faced making a life-altering decision when Manitoba Moose general manager Craig Heisinger came calling in the late fall of 2004.

"My third year in the ECHL I remember telling my parents, 'If I'm still with the Columbia Inferno at Christmas, I'm going to have to pull the plug and go back to school, find something else for a career,'" Burrows said.

The rest, as they say, is well-documented history.

Alex Burrows had enough going for him to make the grade to Vancouver. To his teammates, too, he had always suspected there was goal-scoring talent dying to burst out alongside his grit, defensive play and super-pest mouth.

Burrows was an absolute sh--  disturber on the ice.

Said Alain Vigneault, "When I had him at Manitoba Moose he was in everyone's face. But, he's got great hockey sense and he's got a lot more skill than people give him credit for. Combine those two and you've usually got a pretty good player."

Vigneault followed Burrows to Vancouver. Then, the coach had a decision to make ... a major move to make which could have been make or break for Alain's career.

When the coach first put Ryan Kesler with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra, Burrows found himself playing out of position at center between Steve Bernier and Mason Raymond. Then in the third period on February 10, 2009 at St. Louis, Vigneault put Burrows on the Henrik and Daniel Sedin wing and the twins found what they'd been looking for since Anson Carter left town.

From ball hockey to NHL playoff hero, via Greenville, Baton Rouge and Winnipeg, yes, Burrows pauses occasionally to marvel at the wonder of it all.

"I thought about it in my hotel room, that St. Louis was where I played my first game, my first game with the twins -- and obviously knew it was going to be a big game," Burrows recalled. "I still think about the journey sometimes. I think it's crazy a little bit. But at the same time, I've worked hard for it.

"Right now, we're in a good position and I'm just trying to focus on what I can contribute to this team so we can succeed."

Since then, Burrows had been a big-time contributor posting 28, 35, 26 and 28 goal seasons. His game-winning goal, a 3-2 victory over Colorado, March 24 gave his eight goals this season.

"Alex has really been a clutch player for us," Vigneault said afterward. "He has IT. He's focused, hard-working and he has a knack for being right in the middle of things. Now it isn't checking players in the middle of a scrum as much as before. It's getting us scoring chances."

Of course, there were a series of obstacles Burrows had to overcome.

"The obstacles," admitted Burrows. "At a younger age, I think my size was a big reason why I was never drafted in major junior. I think I was 5-6 when I was 17, and didn't grow into my height until I was 18 so that was a really big set back. It didn't really bother me that much, I just wanted to keep going and take the time to achieve my dream."

He grew out of the size obstacle -- Burrows is now 6-1 and 188 pounds. Burrows had enough talent to overcome everything else. 

Why hockey?

"I don't really know," Burrows hesitated and then shot back. "Back then -- I was born in 1981 -- and the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1986 so that factored in for sure.

"My dad never really knew anything about hockey because he's from England and I think when I was five, hockey was a big topic in Montreal and a lot of kids got into hockey and that's probably how I got into it. Almost all my friends that I still talk to or hang out with all used to play hockey growing up."

Rodney and Carole are his parents. His mother, a Quebec native, is an elementary school principal.

He's come a long way from before a fourth-line player with Ryan Kesler to a first-line talent playing alongside the Sedin twins.

"What started off as grinding it out on the fourth line, being an agitator with Kes if you want to call it that and now playing with two of the smartest and best players in the world, it's like a dream," Burrows emphasized. "Especially now that we're a Stanley Cup contender."

Steve Tambellini, the Edmonton Oilers GM now and former high-ranking official of the Canucks, said, "He's one of those players who fall through the cracks, but because of their perseverance are willing to do whatever it takes. Not just to make it, but just to get a chance in pros.

"He earned a right to play at every level. It doesn't happen too often -- where guys come out of nowhere. Maybe at the time he was draft eligible, he didn't warrant a selection, but he's now he's not a bad player."

To be accepted by his teammates, his linemate Henrik and Daniel Sedins, was a mere formality.

"We always saw, from the day he came, he had skills and he worked hard, and he was smart," Daniel Sedin said. "He made good plays all the time."

Long journey. Dangerous adventure. 

It made everything alright according to Alex Burrows. 

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