MIKE LIAMBAS TAKING HIS HOCKEY CAREER IN STRIDEOct 25, 2018
By Tom Witosky
If Mike Liambas has learned one thing during his hockey career, it’s that nothing ever really stays the same.
“Just looking at my life, I’ve had to come to that conclusion,” the 29-year-old Iowa Wild forward said. “I’ve hit rock bottom where I thought I was done playing hockey, but you just don’t know what is coming next. It’s a cliché but you never know what is going to happen when you go through that next door.”
For Liambas, that next door has meant moving to Iowa after signing a two-year, two-way contract with Minnesota Wild in July and becoming a father for the first time with the birth of his son, Bodhi, in September. It also has meant getting to know new teammates on the Iowa roster that already looks to him for leadership, energy, and at times, protection.
“He is the kind of guy who is dialed into everything and willing to give it everything he has,” said Iowa Wild Head Coach Tim Army, who also described Liambas as “old school.” “That isn’t as common as it once was. He understands just how physical the game really can be and accepts it. He doesn’t look for a way out. He plays straight up, honest hockey.”
Already, Liambas has made a positive impression on players, coaches and fans. He registered a three-game goal streak for the first time in his career and spent no time in the penalty box. He also has become a mentor for younger players, according to Army.
“Guys like him are really very patient with the young guys,” Army said. “’Bus’ is one of those guys who talks to players in a very positive fashion and works with younger players quite well.”
Dmitry Sokolov, who has spent time on a line with Liambas, said the veteran has been helpful both on the ice and off the ice.
“He called me several times when I was getting settled to make sure everything was going well,” Sokolov said. “He is an awesome guy.”
On the ice, Sokolov said Liambas provides valuable advice and does it in a positive manner.
“He will tell you how to do it right, but will do in a friendly way,” he said.
To be sure, Liambas has been controversial. In 2009, Liambas was suspended from the Ontario Hockey League for a hard check on an opposing player that resulted in a serious head injury. That player, Ben Fanelli, recovered and returned to playing junior hockey and is now a coach and businessman.
For Liambas, it became a time of rejection by most hockey teams and reflection about whether he wanted to continue to play hockey. Throughout those years, Liambas, the son of a Greek immigrant father and Italian mother, reconciled what happened to him with what happens to everyone at one time or another in their life.
“There is bad stuff that happens to everyone, but then good things can happen from it,” he said. “After what happened in the OHL, I got support from folks who believed in me.”
First, Liambas received a telephone call from the Toronto Maple Leafs with an invitation to their training camp. Although he was released after camp, Brian Burke, then Toronto’s general manager, described Liambas as a “quality person” and deserving of remaining in hockey.
Then he played his way back into professional hockey over the next three years that included spending a year at the University of British Columbia. At each point, Liambas said, he found support from coaches and teammates giving him the encouragement he needed to stay in hockey.
After three seasons in the ECHL, Liambas caught the attention of Paul Fenton, then the assistant general manager of the Nashville Predators and general manager of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals. At the time, Liambas was playing for Nashville’s ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati.
“I was looking for someone who could provide a spark for our team in Milwaukee and I talked to our coach in Cincinnati and asked him who would be a candidate to come up to Milwaukee,” Fenton remembered. “The first name he threw at me was Bussy. I said, ‘Who is Bussy?’ and he said, ‘Mike Liambas.’”
Fenton understood Liambas’ reputation, but clearly believed the incident in junior hockey was the unfortunate result of a hard check at top speed.
“For the average fan, they thought it was dirty hit but he by no means made a dirty play,” Fenton said.
That support plus a close relationship with Dean Evason, who was the Admirals head coach and now a Minnesota assistant coach, made Liambas decision to sign with the Wild a “no-brainer.”
“I am 29-years-old and an undrafted guy,” Liambas said. “If I am ever going to have a shot at making it to a full-time NHL roster spot, I am going to need people in my corner who are rooting for me. Without Paul and Dean, I probably wouldn’t be playing hockey at this point.”
On the ice, Liambas, who switched from defense to forward early in his career, has become a presence opposing teams must account for, Army said.
During a recent game against Texas, when a Stars player pushed the envelope against a Wild player, Liambas skated by the opposing team bench.
“Bus skates by their bench and says simply, “Not here. That’s not going to happen,’” Army said. “That was it. It was over.”
Liambas said his love for old school hockey “probably comes from watching Don Cherry every day I was growing up.” He also admired the physical play of long-time NHL defenseman Scott Stevens.
“I loved the way he played. Old school hockey is fun,” he said.
At the same time, Liambas also recognizes that his physical play can be mistaken as an endorsement of bullying – something that he and Pierre-Cedric Labrie, a teammate in Rockford, joined forces to combat.
“It has become a real problem in the schools and on the Internet so we decided to try to help kids learn to deal with it and how to help others who have to deal with it,” Liambas said.
As a result, Liambas said he’d like to do the same work inside the Des Moines school system.
“I’ve been through it on both sides of it so I know what is about,” he said. “If you can teach how to cope and deal with a bully, it is a great thing.”
As for his hockey future, Liambas said he still believes he can make it to the NHL.
“I never team thought I’d make my high school but I did,” Liambas said. “I didn’t think I’d play in juniors, but then I did it. I never thought I’d make it into professional hockey, but I did it. I just feel if you keep working on what you want, it does work out for you.”