Kevin Bieksa on his ‘Hockey Night’ evolution and why he hasn’t formally retired

It is almost like clockwork on game nights during the Stanley Cup playoffs: Kevin Bieksa will be trending on Twitter by end of the day.

If it’s not Bieksa, then it’s another “Hockey Night in Canada” panelist — Kelly Hrudey or Jennifer Botterill. Or maybe all three.

What they say moves the needle on social media and the white-hot TV spotlight feels even warmer during the playoffs. Maybe it’s because viewers see more of the panelists than they do certain family members in the May-through-June hockey cocoon. The other difference from the regular season is that it can feel like a marathon on the television set – the first round often featured three games in one night before slowing down to its current pace.

“You get into the rhythm. You get into the groove,” Bieksa explained. “When I’m doing Saturday nights – once a week — during the week there’s some weeks where I don’t watch as much hockey as probably other people. As it gets closer to Thursday/Friday, I’m doing my homework and I start paying a little more attention.

“But when the playoffs are going and you’re working every single day, you have a good feel for what’s happening and which players are playing well day-to-day and what the teams are doing.”

Bieksa became the breakout star of the 2020 playoffs as a between-periods analyst, and now this is his fourth playoffs with HNIC. There was no question he possessed a sharp wit and liked to verbally joust in his playing days with the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks, but those qualities don’t always translate to success on the panel or in the broadcast booth. But they traveled with Bikesa.

“When I was a broadcaster and he was still a player — in particular when he was in Vancouver,” Hrudey said, “he would come on ‘After Hours’ after the late game (and) I would tell everybody, he’s always my favorite guest because he’s well-informed, talkative and he’s got personality. But I had no idea one day he would be working in the same industry and that we’d be sitting on the same desk.”

Bieksa spoke with The Athletic in two interviews – the first one during the regular season near his home in Orange County – covering a wide-ranging number of topics, including how he keeps the balls in the air as a husband and father, hockey dad, TV analyst and hockey academy owner with West Coast Academy in Southern California. Plus, why hasn’t he officially retired from the NHL?

Bieksa was multi-tasking during our first interview over lunch. Conveniently, there was a hockey equipment repair shop in the same complex near the coffee shop. Bieksa went over to drop off his son’s shoulder pads to see if they could be fixed, so the conversation naturally began with hockey equipment.

How many pairs of skates did you go through in a season?

I wanted to wear the same stuff until I got yelled at by the trainers. I didn’t like new skates. I went through about two pairs a year. Whereas somebody like Cam (Fowler) goes through six pairs. Willie Mitchell, my old D partner, went through 12 pairs a year. The trainers were like, “Come on. We have a budget here.”

You’ve come full circle. It must be gratifying being a hockey dad now.

It is fun because I spend so much time with my son, Cole. We wake up at 6 every morning, stop at Starbucks and he gets his strawberry acai and a croissant. We pick up another buddy on the way and we go to the rink. I skate him for an hour and a half and then the bus comes and takes him to school. And I come home and get on with my day.

How did West Coast Academy come to fruition?

We finally decided to buy a house in Orange County. I had been in limbo – if I was going to go play, I was going to have to go off and live on my own. I weighed my options and they were all with teams out East, like Columbus. It was going to be far away. I decided, “No, it was time.” I wanted to stay around the game.

So, I had an opportunity with my business partner (Dean Caban) where he wanted to open an academy. We wanted to bring the East Coast model to California because so many kids once they get to 13, 14, 15, they end up going out East or to Minnesota to prep schools. We thought if we can create a good-enough model here, it would give them another option. We obviously have some good coaching experience between the two of us. My partner has been coaching for 20 years. He’s put multiple guys in the NHL. We’re the same age. He’s great to work with.

We started an academy with ’07s and ’06s (players born in 2006 and 2007). We basically had them at the rink all day long, home-schooled. I hired a teacher. I leased a room. So, it was basically a drop-off for the parents in the morning – like a normal school day. We did that for two years.

This year, all of our kids were aging out and they were getting into high school. We thought it would be pretty irresponsible to keep them in a home school program at the rink. They needed to be socialized. So, Fairmont came to me – one of the top private schools in California – and they just bought a new campus in San Juan Capistrano and they wanted to merge with us.

They wanted me to coach and train their high school team and I had all my kids going into ninth grade. That’s where this new partnership developed. I don’t have to worry about the education part, which was a huge stress.

The parents trust you. I was the principal, the coach, and the owner of the business. I was doing everything and there was a lot of stress. But I was getting to hang out with my son every day and all his buddies. I think you could ask all the kids – I treat them all like my son. They’re all my kids. I get to keep that camaraderie and I’m on the ice every day. So, it fills a couple of voids for me.

Does it enable you to do things the way you would have wanted to have been treated when you were that age?

That’s a big part of the program – the mentorship. It’s the hockey. It’s the school. That’s a big part for me. A lot of hockey players that do this want to coach the team and then they go home after practice. They’re done. For the first two years, I was at the school all day long. I was just hovering. I was having talks with the kids if they needed it.

I was actually going and helping out with their schoolwork as well. There were 25 kids and our teacher can only do so much. I’m not just telling them how to act. I’m showing them. I’m showing them how to hold doors open.

So now that Ryan Kesler coaching his son in youth hockey in Michigan, do you ever exchange coaching tips and ideas?

He knows everything (smiling). He knows it all already. He doesn’t need my advice.

So switching over to your broadcasting career, do you approach the job any differently now than you did at the start?

It’s changed a little. Our approach has changed a little bit. Not so much in-game analysis — more bigger picture stuff, so more macro than micro. In the playoffs, it gives you an opportunity because there are so many games. You can pick apart some of the details of the game. I enjoy that part a lot, getting back to criticizing the game, and systems and players and faceoff plays and all the things that I think I do well. I really didn’t answer your question.

I feel like I came out of the gate, raw and almost naive to everything, but I thought that really helped me. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

In fact, it makes perfect sense. I think that was part of your original appeal – that you were a fresh voice, and you didn’t just utter a string of sometimes meaningless cliches.

You don’t get sucked into the everyday lingo and what other people are doing. The way you analyze and see the game keeps it fresh. That’s why some weeks, I like to not even watch hockey, so once I get to the weekend, I have such a fresh perspective, a clean slate.

One of my colleagues doesn’t read anyone else because he doesn’t want to be influenced by what other people are saying.

That’s exactly what I think, too. I don’t really watch other people on TV. I’ll have people in the studio saying, “Oh this guy was on last night on NHL Network,” and I’ll have no idea what they said or how they do. You’re right. I don’t want to be influenced at all by what they say.

When you were first starting, did you have any nerves? Even people who have been in the spotlight still get nervous staring down the barrel of a camera.

That’s the problem. I wasn’t nervous. If I was nervous, or if I am nervous, I’m not as good and not as entertaining. It was like that for hockey, too. If you asked my teammates, I was pretty light before the game. On the ice, I was all business. But I was light before the game and in the dressing room.

I didn’t want to be tense. I’m light in the boardroom before our pre-production meeting. I’m laughing. There’s times just before when sometimes you get that little bit of nerves. The whole time I’m just trying to stay loose because if I get nervous and reserved, I don’t think I’m as entertaining.

It’s hard because you have your pre-production meeting and you’re having conversations with Ron MacLean and Elliotte (Friedman) and Kelly Hrudey and Jennifer Botterill and it’s an easy conversation. Everyone is arguing their own point about different things. Now it’s like, “Do that again on camera.” There’s a lot going on. … I’ve always been a student of the game and this is a game to me. I come in and I watch how Elliotte does it and how Ron does it. I’ve tried to pick up on all the little things.

You mentioned that you were planning to announce your retirement with a special twist. What is the status of the announcement?

I was going to sign a one-day contract and retire as a Canuck two years ago, on March 28. I don’t even know where it stands. We had it planned, but COVID shut things down on the 15th. I had my flight booked and everything.

It was actually my dad’s idea. I don’t need to retire – officially. I don’t need the attention. My dad was like, “It’s good for the Canucks. Good for your legacy.” I’m basically doing it for my dad. I’m supposed to retire as a Canuck (smiles) … Maybe I’ll retire as a Duck.

We were talking (with the Canucks) at the start of the season and they were kind of figuring out when we were going to do it and they said they were definitely going to do it. Then Jim Benning gets fired. Now there’s a whole new regime. I was there for the mental health night but it wasn’t the time to bring it up. Who knows? If we get to it next year, fine. I’m not going anywhere.

Lastly, how much do you miss Brian Burke on the panel?

I miss Burkie. It’s felt like too long now since he hasn’t been with us. So, we still talk and it’s funny. We can tell he watches our show because he’ll chime in. We have group texts, and every once in a while, Burkie will chime in, critiquing one of us or making fun of one of us. So, I know he’s still watching.

(Photo of Kevin Bieksa: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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