Kuzma: Biega big on mastering mental challenges of excelling on demand


Alex Biega has become comfortable at being uncomfortable.

Alex Biega has become comfortable at being uncomfortable.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, The Province

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Following frenetic forays in which Alex Biega put up eye-popping numbers and raised eyebrows Tuesday at Rogers Arena, he was asked to play figure skating judge Thursday.

After all, the undersized Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman had seven shots, 10 shot attempts, six hits, two blocked shots, an even rating, a giveaway and a minor penalty in 17:37 of ice time during a 7-5 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

More importantly, Biega was in the lineup based on merit — a replacement for the struggling Ben Hutton and not because of an injury — and for any depth defenceman dealing with the constant mental strain of training and not playing, it’s not something. It’s everything.

“That does mean a lot to me,” said the 29-year-old Montreal native, whose two-year, US$1.5 million contract extension expires after this season. “I’ve come to terms with my career that when I get in, I never give myself any excuses.

“The reason I got my first NHL recall (2014-15) is because of how I’m playing now. It bodes well. An aggressive style (of team play) is right up my alley. I like to join the play and be part of every zone. This structure fits who I am as a player.”

That said, what would Biega reward himself for technical merit and artistic impression against the Canadiens?

Probably pretty high marks on both accounts because he covered all areas of the ice like a seasoned figure skater. Technically, he would probably score higher.

Racing up ice to join the rush and hustling back — and even plastering winger Daniel Carr with a heavy sideboards hit — rates for artistic impression. But that’s open to interpretation and sustainability questions.

However, those seven shots stick out. Biega had just 32 through 18 games — and three assists — but had six shots against the San Jose Sharks last Thursday in Vancouver.

Would he give himself a high technical mark after Tuesday’s outing?

“I would,” said Biega. “Probably because I’ve been working on that and I try to shoot 50 to 100 pucks a day and a lot of it has to do with watching other guys in the league and how they do it so well.

“And we’re playing the best in Brent Burns (five goals, five assists in previous 10 games). The way he shoots with a longer stick. I use a longer one, but he just shoots everything and he gets it through that first layer.

“It has velocity and it’s hard and if it gets by that second layer, defencemen are taught to box out and it (shot) usually gets on net. And those wristers are dangerous, too. You have a guy in front for tips and you get some puck luck.”

There’s nothing lucky about Biega being back in the lineup.

His mental strength to endure a span of 10 games in the last month as a healthy scratch speaks to dedication. And it goes well beyond practice, the gym and video sessions. A 95 flex in his composite stick helps with whip, but it doesn’t help with processing his place in the game.

Biega is big on visualization. He’s also a voracious reader and listener to find the psychological tools that will help prolong his career. That not only includes self-help books, but audio books on those long charter flights and the attentive ear of the club’s sports psychologist Dr. David Cox.

If that isn’t enough, there’s also charter jet seatmate Thomas Vanek’s brain to pick.

“I try to read 50 books a year — whether audio books or just reading self-improvement books or ones that people have recommended,” revealed Biega. “The mental part of this league is just unbelievable. We play every second night and you’re not going to be at your best every night.

“It’s how you get back to the way you’re capable of playing and I’ve got a good balance with that. You just can’t let things affect you and I’ve shown that. If you’re not in, control what you can control and make your environment.”

Coach Travis Green believes the added dimension that Biega brings has been a boon to his club because leading by example sends the right message to everybody.

“When he’s aggressive, I like that element with our group and it’s a big bonus because he’s done a good job getting up ice and getting shots away as well,” said Green. “He’s a real energetic player and it’s keeping that intact and not overdoing it and forcing plays.

“It’s a fine line for him of doing too much and playing his game.”

OVERTIME — Sharks’ centre Logan Couture missed his second consecutive game Thursday with a concussion following a collision with Alexander Burmistrov last Thursday at Rogers Arena. He leads the club with 26 points (15-11) and a lineup shuffle put former Canuck winger Jannik Hansen, who had just three assists through 22 games, on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.



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Alex Biega has become comfortable at being uncomfortable.

Alex Biega has become comfortable at being uncomfortable.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, The Province

Alex Biega has become comfortable at being uncomfortable.
Thomas Vanek has been a sounding board for the inquisitive Alex Biega.
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