Liambas keeps on grinding

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

by Craig Elsten | AHL On The Beat

Hockey is a sport with a unique combination of speed, skill, and toughness. The 21st-century version is faster than ever, with more skill than ever. Sanding off the rougher edges of the sport leaves less room for the game’s true grinders. Today’s tough guy needs to be able to contribute to his club in multiple ways beyond when the gloves hit the ice.

This is the narrow nexus being navigated by 29-year-old Mike Liambas, who has racked up 922 penalty minutes in 288 career AHL games. The do-it-all dynamo has four goals in 31 games for the San Diego Gulls this season, but he battles for his club night in, night out. Whether it’s a hit at the blue line, a check in the corner or a penalty killed, Liambas is on time when called upon to step up for his club.

His passion and performance earned him a first extended recall by the Anaheim Ducks to the National Hockey League on Nov. 19 for what turned into a seven-game stint.

“I got the call from (Gulls general manager Bob Ferguson) the day before in the afternoon. It was a Gulls game night,” recalled Liambas of the moment. “You’re kind of speechless at that point. You dream your whole life of getting that call, and when you’re not there, every day you want to get that call. It was a pretty special moment.”

Liambas played seven games with the Ducks, recording his first NHL point, an assist, on Nov. 24 vs. Winnipeg. He also earned 21 penalty minutes in the seven games.

Liambas has been working since day one to earn his spot. Arriving as an undrafted non-prospect at OHL training camp with the Erie Otters, Liambas was an undersized fireplug of a defenseman, growing up idolizing Toronto’s Wendel Clark and New Jersey’s Scott Stevens — two players who wore the “C” on their sweater while intimidating on the ice with their hits and their willingness to deliver the plays that don’t show up on the score sheet.

“I couldn’t wait until I got to the age when you were allowed to hit and stuff, because I watched Scott Stevens like a hawk. Same thing with Wendel Clark. They’re both guys that are captains, they are leaders, they hit, they fight, they score goals, they do everything. I wish I could be a quarter of what those guys ever were.”

Liambas fought his way up through the ranks, literally and figuratively. He earned his first call-up to the AHL in the 2012-13 season with the Milwaukee Admirals. Then, converted by Milwaukee into a forward, Liambas played a full season in 2013-14 with three goals, five assists and 267 PIM in 60 games.

He watched other smaller players. Liambas used to be a Tasmanian devil, unrestrained and over-amped. So in order to settle down his boiling blood and raging emotions, he turned to a children’s rhyme.

“When I was younger in junior, I would start singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ in my head, because it gets your head out of it and calms you down. Something that will slow your brain and your emotions down a bit.”

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

Liambas’s first NHL contract came from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16, a two-way deal. Back in the Predators organization a year later, he earned his first NHL recall, playing one game with Nashville last season. His parents and brothers flew down from Woodbridge, Ontario, for the moment, which Liambas felt added to the pressure of the situation. For his Anaheim stint, his family watched from afar.

The son of two immigrants, who moved separately from Greece and Italy to Canada in their respective youth, Liambas was raised to keep his head down and work hard. His dad is just about ready to retire from a 35-year career as an electrician for the city of Toronto. His mom was an executive assistant for an accounting firm.

“All they knew was to work hard, provide for your family, and do the same thing every day,” he recalled. “They came to Canada with absolutely nothing and made a pretty good life for themselves, and for me and my brothers. If I can take away one thing from my parents, it’s that work ethic.”

His teammates noticed, and have noticed throughout the years. While Liambas is often an unpopular player in the division where he plays, he is cherished within his own room where the competitive spirit will bleed to the ping pong table, but will blend with his open heart and giving nature.

“It’s a predictable game,” said Gulls forward Scott Sabourin of Liambas. “You know where he’s going to be, you know he’s going to show up, and you know he’s going to give you that compete level. It’s great.”

There have been bumps along the road, for sure. Those moments are part of his history, but so is the present day, where an older and wiser Liambas knows it’s not the same as it used to be in pro hockey.

“The game’s changing, and I need to adapt,” he said. “If I don’t, it’s going to leave me behind.”

Liambas will continue to make hockey exciting for his home fans, and miserable for the opponents, as long as he continues to navigate the nexus between skill, speed and toughness.