Alex Friesen’s story is another one of those that proves that one should never underestimate someone because of their size. At 5’9” and 186 lbs at the age of 21, Friesen’s appearance is anything but big – but his hockey skills and the fact that he has had 17 career fights in the OHL makes up for that.
Signed by the Vancouver Canucks earlier this week, Friesen will be leaving a legacy in his hometown of Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario, where he spent his five-season major junior career with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs and starting a new chapter at the Canucks’ prospect camp in September. He will likely start the season with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, and Niagara’s coach and general manager Marty Williamson has a firm belief in Friesen’s success in the future.
“He’s going to impress the people in Chicago so much that he’ll get his opportunity in Vancouver,” Williamson told the Province. “[Wolves head coach] Craig MacTavish is going to be raving about him and he’ll get a guy who will always be there for important situations. He really thrives on that. He was our best player throughout the playoffs and is absolutely a heart-and-soul guy. Not the most gifted goal-scorer, but the hardest worker and the hardest hitter.”
A fan favorite in the OHL for his production and work ethic, Friesen has amassed 91 goals and 244 points in 292 career OHL games. He has had success in the playoffs as well, reaching the OHL finals this season and recording 22 points in 20 playoff games, ranked fourth overall in team scoring. Known as a stable two-way centre who has exceptional penalty killing skills as well as offensive prowess, Williamson has few negative things to say of what he defines as a “backbone” player.
“He’s going to go on. How proud we will be when he’s with Chicago and gets called up to Vancouver. That’s pretty special and that’s where you take a lot of pride,” Williamson told Thorold Niagara News.
It is not only Friesen’s coach who has recognized his skills and abilities. In a poll of OHL coaches Friesen was named the best faceoff performer, best defensive forward, best penalty killer and the third-hardest worker. Playing alongside future NHL-ers such as Freddie and Dougie Hamilton and Mark Visentin, Friesen was awarded the IceDogs’ team award for the Heart of the Team this season for the second time in his career.
When the Canucks drafted Friesen in 2010, 172nd overall in the sixth round of the NHL draft, they saw much of the same things coaches and opposing players are continuing to see in Friesen today.
“When you look at our depth chart, we have a need and particularly centers who can play at both ends of the rink,” Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman told the Province. “What we like about Alex is that he’s an overachiever and is a gritty two-way forward who plays above his size. And you don’t want to put players in a [third-line] box because they can develop and exceed expectations.”
The one fault found in Friesen? His 106 penalty minutes. But as Williamson points out, Friesen has been doing all he can to end that.
“He used to get frustrated when he didn’t score and really accepted his role this year,” Williamson said. “Knowing how important face-offs were and the PK were and keeping his composure.”
His determination to get better is just one of the things about Friesen that draws attention to him. That and his team-first attitude.
“With team success comes personal success and I’m happy with our team,” Friesen told the Niagara Falls Review. “We can compete with anyone.”
Picked in the second round of the 2007 OHL draft by the IceDogs, it will be difficult for Friesen to move on, away from his family, his hometown and his team.
“I remember my first year coming in and the older guys saying to cherish it and soak it in because it’s going to go fast. And it has gone fast…The support has been fantastic. We’ve gotten great crowds throughout the years and the family support has been an extra boost for me. Obviously when you’re 16, it’s hard to make the transition to living away from home. Staying at home has been a really positive in my progress as a person and as a hockey player.”
There’s no doubt that Williamson will miss having Friesen on his team as well.
“It’s the end of a chapter and the end of your chapter with them,” he told Thorold Niagara News of graduating OHL players. “It’s tough to see them go. It’s going to be very weird not calling Friesen’s name out next year, especially when he’s a backbone guy you count on.”