by Kalen Qually || AHL On The Beat Archive
Mario Bliznak’s first experience playing hockey overseas in Canada could have discouraged other impressionable 16-year-olds into rethinking their hockey playing dreams.
Bliznak and his Slovakia teammates were thumped several times on their way to finishing eighth at the 2004 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
“We didn’t do very well,” said Bliznak recalling his first time across the pond in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “That wasn’t a very good experience for me.”
Two years later he joined the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants with hopes of following his dream like many of his countrymen before him.
“Growing up I watched Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa,” Bliznak said. “I wanted to follow them and play in the NHL.”
The faith that he showed in his own hockey journey became immediately more rewarding as he helped lead the Giants to the first of two straight Memorial Cup appearances. In his second WHL season, when Vancouver hosted the tournament, Bliznak scored a goal and five assists in five games helping the team win their first Memorial Cup championship.
“When I was in Slovakia I never played any big games,” said Bliznak. “I don’t think I played any playoff games. (The Memorial Cup) was great, such an unbelievable feeling.”
The role Bliznak played with the Vancouver Giants closely mirrors the role he has stepped into in three seasons with the Manitoba Moose. Moose general manager Craig Heisinger has seen his game evolve from the junior to professional ranks. Which is to say, it hasn’t needed to.
“There are some players whose role changes as a professional, but Bliznak’s has not,” said Heisinger. “He’s a safe, reliable, steady performer. His skills have upgraded in order to do that at the professional level.”
The skills Bliznak has developed since arriving in Canada are traits many coaches often struggle to try and teach.
“I think that my defensive play is strong,” said Bliznak. “I like to score some goals but coaches look to put me against any line and on the penalty kill. I try to be a solid two-way player.”
Bliznak’s steady play at the AHL level has been rewarded by the team that drafted him with a pair of NHL call-ups. He played two games for the Vancouver Canucks near the beginning of the 2009-10 season. Then in his second recall in November of this season, Bliznak scored his first NHL goal.
“It happened really fast and at first I couldn’t believe I’d scored,” said Bliznak about the goal he scored for the Canucks on Nov. 11 against the Ottawa Senators. “It was a big accomplishment for me.”
Now 24 years old, Bliznak is nearing the end of his third season with Manitoba. And despite playing key roles on the team’s penalty kill and as a primary shut down centre, he currently leads the Moose in plus/minus with a plus-15 rating. He also has 27 points, one shy of his season high with the Moose.
“After three years, he’s a respected leader in our group,” added Heisinger. “It’s quite an accomplishment that he’s fit into our game so well. It’s a positive for other young European players joining our organization.”