Bus to big leagues: Burrows joined Canucks’ Cup charge from humble beginnings

BOSTON – The Stanley Cup finals never seemed farther away than when Alex Burrows skated in half-empty Southern rinks for something called the Greenville Grrrowl, making $425 a week and wondering whether he should go back to school.

Burrows spent his first two seasons in pro hockey riding buses in the ECHL, living on that meagrepaycheque and wondering if he’d ever get a break.

Seven years later, he’s contending for the Conn Smythe Trophy as an essential part of the Vancouver Canucks’ run at their first championship, skating on a line with the Sedin twins. After taking a circuitous route to the NHL, Burrows is dominating Stanley Cup headlines with his stick and his mouth.

“I wasn’t the guy that anybody picked to be here, but I love being a part of this team,” Burrows said. “The way I got here just makes you work harder than the next guy. Every day you get, you have to get better.”

Burrows put an indelible mark on the first two games against Boston—although luckily for him, his teeth didn’t leave a mark on Patrice Bergeron’s finger.

In Game 1, he drew the Bruins’ ire by appearing to bite Bergeron, but he wasn’t suspended when the league couldn’t find evidence he bit down. Burrows then decided Game 2 with three points, including the winning overtime goal on a wraparound that will live for decades in Canucks history.

Burrows’ humble hockey beginnings instilled him with an inner drive that surfaces with ferocious work in practice, dirty work during games, and even the occasional misbehaviour. The Bruins were still talking indignantly about Burrows’ bite five days after it happened, but players from both teams respect Burrows’ tenacity and gamesmanship.

“He works harder than anybody,” Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. “He’s gotten better every year he’s been with this team. He’s matured into a player who’s really a key to our team. I remember him talking about how he had to have a really good year in the (ECHL) just to get a chance at the next level, and he’s been cashing in every opportunity.”

Burrows wasn’t drafted by an NHL club, and he didn’t even make it to the highest level of junior hockey until a year after he was draft-eligible. When he left the Quebec junior league’s Shawinigan Cataractes in 2002, he ended up in the ECHL, hockey’s equivalent of a double-A minor league.

He played for Greenville, Baton Rouge and Columbia in the ECHL while also suiting up for the Montreal Red Lite, a ball hockey team. Burrows even played for Canada’s national ball hockey team—yes, there is such a thing—and was considered the nation’s top player in the street-hockey offshoot of the icy national sport.

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“There’s a lot of ups and downs in a pro career,” Burrows said. “After that second year in the ECHL, I remember thinking I probably should go back to school. Making $425 wasn’t covering all my expenses. But I stuck with it. I didn’t know why sometimes, but I did, and I got a chance.”

Burrows used the year-round training in ball hockey to improve his mental approach to hockey, and his conditioning got better from all the running. He eventually caught the Vancouver organization’s attention with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and he made his NHL debut at 24.

He was a fourth-liner and a penalty-killer early on, tirelessly blocking shots and messing with the opposition’s top players. When he got the chance to skate with the Sedin twins on their top line after the All-Star break in February 2009, his toughness around the net and sharpness on rebounds proved to be a brilliant complement to their playmaking skills.

“Just watching them play, I’ve learned a lot,” Burrows said. “They don’t beat people with strength or speed. They do it with smarts and good passing and a good mental game. I listen to what they have to say, and I try to help.”

Burrows scored 28 goals in the 2008-09 season and got 35 last year—while also racking up more than 120 penalty minutes for the third straight year. No Bruins fans will be surprised to learn Burrows has a long history of bad behaviour, such as punching Edmonton enforcer Zack Stortini while he sat on the bench a few years.

“I don’t think he tries to take advantage of anybody,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who refers to Burrows as “the other brother.”

“Ijust think he plays an aggressive game,” Henrik Sedin added. “That’s the way he got into this league, and that’s the way he’s always been. He’s going to do anything he can to help his team win.”

Burrows already is in the Canadian Ball Hockey Association’s Hall of Fame, but he has been essential to the Canucks in this so-far charmed post-season run—and he’s pushing his way into the Conn Smythe discussion as playoff MVP.

Burrows’ life is coming together off the ice as well: One day after he scored the winning overtime goal in Game 7 against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, his daughter, Victoria, was born.

“It’s been a great season and a great playoff for me,” Burrows said. “I just want to finish it the right way, to keep giving the right effort until it’s all over. You never know when you’ll get a chance to do this again.”