Kris Belan began the season with the San Francisco Bulls, making an appearance in every game until the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL offered him a Professional Tryout Agreement on February 27th. He embodies the grit and intensity that Coach Pat Curcio strives for and when Belan got the call-up, the Bulls were left with a gaping hole in their checking line. I got a chance to catch up with Kris this past week and talk with him about his early hockey career, his time with the Bulls, and how he is adapting to playing across the country with the Monarchs.
When you grow up in a small Ontario town, skating is what you do. Belan began when he was three years old. It helped that he had two older brothers and his parents started him early, getting him involved in organized hockey by the time he was four. Growing up, Kris was drawn to the great Stevie Yzerman, one of the best two-way forwards the game has known and was inspired by another Detroit Redwing and teammate of Yzerman:
“I would say I want be a power forward or resemble something like that, so I really liked Brendan Shanahan. I always thought he played a gritty style of hockey, but could mix in some points here and there and he can basically do it all, so he was another guy I resembled my play after.”
Kris spent several years in the OHL, playing with the London Knights and Oshawa Generals. He racked up quite a tally in penalty minutes, but few points. He admits that he wasn’t that rounded of a player and that by the time he was finishing his OHL career there weren’t too many options for him. He did have some university teams looking at him and he knew that going to university was something he wanted to do and get out of the way early. He decided on playing for the University of Guelph Gryphons, majoring in economics and finance during his five years. Belan says the college leagues have come a long way since he first started at Guelph. The hockey is good and a lot of guys are realizing it’s a sensible choice to make, especially with a school package incentive.
He feels that it was the right choice for him and it is clear that Kris excelled in hockey during his tenure with the Guelph Gryphons. He paced a point a game every year except his first, was the top scorer for the team two years running and kept his physical play. By the time his University career was finished he had received the Jack Pos trophy in 2010 as the team’s MVP and became captain of the team.
Belan’s first year of professional hockey began in 2012, when he was 25, joining the Toldeo Walleye at the end of the 2011-2012 season. His time at University delayed his pro debut but he felt the extra time allowed his game to blossom. He had matured both in strength, physical presence and was a better player for it, which definitely made a difference in his success at the professional level.
San Francisco Bulls Head Coach Pat Curcio brought Kris Belan out west to fill the 2012-2013 inaugural roster and play gritty hockey, defining the core characteristic of the new team. Belan attributes his growth and success as a power forward to Curcio’s guidance.
“First off Patty (Curcio) has always given me the opportunity to do what I do and he likes my style of game and that’s what you need out of a coach, a coach that believes in you and lets you play your game. He constantly stresses… finish your hits, block shots, keep it simple and I think that’s what’s helped me get to where I am right now. Every team needs a shut down guy to do that gritty work. I think that’s what has helped me here (in Manchester) it’s Pat, because he’s kept me on the straight and narrow, told me to stick to my game and do what I do.”
By the time the Manchester Monarchs came calling, Belan had not missed a game in a Bulls sweater, led the team in penalty minutes and racked up 20 points in his 55 games with the team. He has played in 5 games with the Monarchs, notching an assist and one fighting major. He’s had to adjust to the faster pace and skill level and it’s taken a couple games for him to notice the subtle differences of play at the AHL level.
“It’s a bit more strategic, its systems and making sure you are in the right spot at the right time. These guys are so skilled in this league, one mistake, someone not in the right spot at the right time and its in your net you know what I mean.”
Even though the Monarchs are affiliated with the LA Kings organization and the Bulls, the San Jose Sharks, Belan has noticed similarities in their systems.
“Both teams are pretty defensive and have a very defensive mindset, such as being on the defensive end of a scrum. That’s one thing in SF (that’s the same in Manchester) we have to make sure there is a high guy, we’re always playing with layers and making sure there is a guy that if one gets beat there’s another guy right there, they are pretty similar actually.”
The faster pace and higher level of skill in the AHL means that the plays change a bit based on who the opponent is that night. Belan says one thing that is part of practice every day is watching video and scouting the other teams and “every game we are switching a bit depending on who we’re playing. Every game there is something a little bit different whether it’s a forecheck or what we do off the faceoff.”
With Belan’s departure from the Bulls, the team struggled to put together wins as the team felt the absence of one of their most physical players. Curcio noted that the team “didn’t have any guys that could shut down the other team’s best players.” Kris was that shut down guy and the loss forced Curcio to make some roster adjustments before the March trade deadline. Kris was happy to hear that he was leaving a presence in San Francisco. That is the kind of player he strives to be:
“Every night that is what I focus on, what I base my game around is shutting down guys. It can be a little bit hard because you are always playing against the top line, especially when you are at home. You have to make sure you are of defensive mind going into the game.”
Belan also feels that Curcio has disciplined him to that mindset:
“You have to pick your spots and know when to jump into the plays and when not to. Patty is good at doing that and he’s making sure our line knows we have a job that night, to make sure we shut down that line. He holds you to it, he holds you accountable.”
Although he is skating across the country at the next level of professional hockey in the AHL with Manchester, Kris seems to have left his heart in San Francisco and misses his teammates whom he has felt close to since the get go. He knows that when he does return the team will look a little different.
“Even since I’ve been gone it’s been a little bit different team. We’ve lost quite a few guys. You hate to see guys like (Jordan) Clendenning go and Tucks (Alex Tuckerman) and Lessie (Jonathan Lessard) and all those guys but its part of the game though I guess. There is still a core bunch of guys that have been there for the whole year. It’s always been a close team, right from day one, which is one of the best things about playing there.”
Belan is unsure when he’ll be back to San Francisco, he just has to take it day by day, “show up to practice and play hard and you cant doing anything else but that.” Last week there had been talk that Belan would return to the Bulls in time for the weekend matchup with the Utah Grizzlies, a team that now boasts seven former Bulls. It seems unlikely for this week as the LA Kings recalled right wing Tyler Toffoli from the Monarchs on March 10th, which may change the structure of the team and secure Belan’s future as a Monarch for a little longer. Asked who would give him the most grief if he were to play during the weekend tilt against Utah:
If I was to return obviously Clendenning is going to give me the most trouble. We always kind of battled through practice and we’re both similar players so I’m sure he’d be giving it to me if I was there.”
The Bulls are finding their stride with the new additions that have come in Belan’s wake, having won their last two games in fine fashion. Something is still missing on the Barn’s ice, a little bit of grit in the corner in the form of Kris Belan, reading the play from beneath his upturned brow. When asked about his distinctive scar that gives him that beguiling look, Belan said it happened while playing for Guelph, his visor cut him when someone hit him from behind giving him 8 stitches not unlike the ones he’s most recently had in nearly the same spot. If his physical force isn’t enough, he can always use intimidation with his looks, those scars give him an edge in the stare down. Belan laughs and says “in the stare down, yeah that’s what I’m going for exactly…”
A gritty power forward, who knows when to hit, mixes in a few points here and there, and knows how to do it all.