VANCOUVER — When Kevin Bieksa stepped on the ice at Rogers Arena for the Vancouver Canucks' morning skate on Thursday, he felt like he was home.
It's been more than four years since the defenceman suited up for an NHL game — and more than seven since he played for the Canucks — but memories of his time with the team quickly rushed back.
"I don't know if you guys saw morning skate, but I dominated out there," he joked with reporters. "But that ice felt good again."
The 41-year-old Bieksa was back in the building for his official retirement Thursday after signing a one-day contract with Vancouver. The Canucks are set to mark the occasion with a ceremony before facing the Anaheim Ducks, the only other team the blue liner played for over his 13-season NHL career.
"It's been it's been amazing," Bieksa said. "So I'm trying not to be too much of a distraction. I had a little nice morning skate, went in the dressing room trying to talk with the guys. … I'm trying to do my thing and enjoy it have closure for my family but not distract the rest of the guys."
Bieksa put up 278 points (63 goals, 215 assists) over 808 NHL games for Vancouver and Anaheim.
Picked by Vancouver in the fifth round of the 2001 NHL entry draft, he wasn't always expected to be a star.
The six-foot-one, 200-pound native of Grimsby, Ont., used his physical play and solid shot to secure a spot in the Canucks' lineup and helped lead the team to seven playoff appearances between 2007 and 2015.
“The one thing I knew about him is he was as good a team player as you’re ever going to find," said Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, who was behind the Anaheim bench during part of Bieksa's time in Vancouver.
"If anybody got in trouble, he was there to protect you. If anybody got hit, he was there to jump in. He was all about team, he was well liked by everybody.
"And he competed every night. Whether he was good, whether he was bad, it didn't make any difference. He was competing and doing everything he could to win because, to Kevin — and all the great ones — it's all about winning."
Bieksa was a crucial piece in Vancouver's 2011 run to the Stanley Cup final, tallying 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 25 games.
With Game 5 of the western conference final against the San Jose Sharks tied 2-2 in double overtime, Bieksa blasted a shot from inside the blue line and sealed the series with a sneaky game-winning goal.
What the defenceman is most proud of during his time in Vancouver, though, is the culture he and his teammates created.
"We all wanted to be better than the other person, we all battled and we all tried to perfect our craft, whether it was taping pucks in front of the net," Bieksa said.
"It was just about having pride in what you do, being competitive about it and pushing each other. And I think that that's the sign of a good team with a good identity."
Bo Horvat is the only player left on Vancouver's roster who played alongside Bieksa, suiting up alongside him during his rookie season in 2014-15.
The Canucks captain said the boisterous blue liner is still one of his favourite teammates.
"He truly cares about every single teammate that he plays with," Horvat said. "For me as a young guy coming in, he held me accountable. … He always wanted the best out of me. He always kind of took me under his wing and pushed me to work harder and to be in great shape."
An off-season trade in June 2015 saw the Canucks deal Bieksa to the Ducks for a second-round pick in the 2016 draft. He had one year left on his contract at the time with a cap hit of US$4.6 million.
Bieksa said he never wanted to leave Vancouver.
"I always considered myself a Canuck," he said. "When I was in Anaheim — and I loved my teammates in Anaheim — but they used to say you 'You and (Ryan) Kessler talk about Vancouver a lot. You guys always talk about Vancouver.' And I was like 'That’s the way we do it here. We had a good thing going for a long time.'
"A lot of good memories. We had a really great culture and a lot of success. So I always considered myself a Canuck, even when I left."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press