VANCOUVER — To win hockey games, Alex Biega would fight if he had to. He would battle and bleed and leave the rink with bruises or a broken tooth.
Then he’d go home for dinner and his mom would survey the damage and wonder how her sons could do this to each other. Then the four Biega boys would eat angry and return at night for a rematch on the frozen lake or the outdoor rink near their home in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire.
“It was always a bloodbath,” Alex, 29, says of growing up on the ice in Montreal, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend. “There’d be a fight and someone would come home without a tooth or something. We’d be pissed off [with each other] and guys would be bleeding, but it’s pretty funny looking back at it.
“We were best friends back then and best friends now. Those little, small games playing on the outdoor rink meant nothing. But to us, in that moment, they were everything. You wanted to win. That combativeness is definitely attributed a lot to my brothers. I think sometimes hockey would have been a lot different if I didn’t have my brothers there pushing me.”
Mike, Danny and Marc Biega pushed their “big” brother Alex, all five-foot-10 of him, right to the National Hockey League.
Biega has built a professional career by playing each game like it’s his last. His nickname, “Bulldog,” suits him.
He was supposed to be not big enough, not fast enough, not skilled enough to play in the NHL, yet has survived with the Vancouver Canucks as a tenacious depth defencemen, keeping his job when so often it looked intended for someone else.
“I was always stocky and built heavy, but the height was always the issue,” Biega says. “So I thought: OK, I better be stronger than everyone else. So I always had a strong work ethic and a passion for working out off the ice. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had that. I wanted to be the strongest, fittest guy on every team I played on.
“I went to Sport-Etudes (in Montreal). It was an academy where you go to school for half the day and then do hockey for two hours a day. Guy Boucher was one of the skills coaches and he always told my dad I had to ‘grow two inches, grow two inches.’ I had to be six feet tall for the draft because that was the norm for defencemen.”
At five-foot-10 – and we’re giving Biega the benefit of the doubt, although you can’t believe everything you read in NHL media guides – he was a 2006 fifth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres.
Biega went to Harvard on a hockey scholarship, followed there by Mike and Danny, who spent four years in pro hockey and played 10 games for the Carolina Hurricanes three seasons ago. The youngest Biega, 23-year-old Marc, was a senior defenceman this season at Merrimack College.
As boys, Alex said he and Marc always played against Mike and Danny — oldest and youngest versus the two middle brothers.
Biega has played 134 games for the Canucks, who first acquired him as a free-agent in 2013 after the defenceman spent three years in Buffalo’s farm system. He played another season and a half in the American Hockey League seasons with the Utica Comets before the Canucks allowed Biega to make his NHL debut three years ago at age 26. He turns 30 on April 4.
“It’s crazy how the league has changed, even in the last two years,” Biega says. “Now it’s all about puck-moving defencemen – guys who can move and break the puck out and skate. If you can’t skate in this league, you see more and more guys getting forced out. But when I broke in, I beat the odds for sure. I was an outlier, breaking into the league at my age. You didn’t see any defencemen who were 5-10 that were defensive-minded and didn’t run the power play.
“I always had that belief in myself that I could play at this level and contribute at this level. Every time I step on the ice, I remind myself of that. There’s always something to prove, always someone watching.
“A lot of scouts out there, a lot of people in the past for sure put an X beside my name. Too small. At the end of the day, if you refuse to accept failure, you’ll find success. That’s always been my mindset.”