Lightning's Bierk finds fame often is relative

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer

    LAKELAND -- Lightning prospect Zac Bierk stood in the goaltender's crease moments before the biggest game of his life. He glanced at the roof of the Peterborough Memorial Centre and saw a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II painted by a world-renowned artist: his father.

    Bierk shifted his eyes to the stands. He saw a model who regularly appears in Vogue and Elle when she's not prancing up the runways in Paris or Milan: his sister.

    Then he listened to a rousing national anthem by the lead singer of one of the most popular heavy metal bands in history: his brother.

    Take that, Partridges.

    Normally when one of the kids is a can't-miss NHL prospect, a Canadian family is the talk of the town. In the Bierk family, it's barely interesting enough for dinner conversation.

    "My children have proven something that is sorely lacking in today's society," David Bierk said. "The ability to dream. So many kids in school are told they can't do this or can't do that. Who says you can't play in the NHL? Or be a rock star? Or be a model? If you have the talent and you're dedicated, why can't you do any of those things?"

    Or who's to say you can't be famous in the art world? David Bierk's paintings are showcased internationally, and he owns a gallery near Toronto. Years ago, David opened the gallery for his oldest son to practice his music. That would be Sebastian Bach, founder and lead singer of the heavy metal band Skid Row. Meantime, daughter Heather was carving out a modeling career that has paid her bills for the past six years.

    Oh yeah, Bierk's mom is an artist, too.

    "Coming from that kind of family gives me confidence. I believe anything is possible," Zac said.

    An NHL career didn't seem possible five years ago. At the time, Bierk wasn't even playing organized hockey. But after a short stint at Trinity College, he was invited to training camp four years ago with the Peterborough Peetes, a junior team in the Ontario Hockey League. The Peetes had two goalies, but Bierk showed enough potential that the Peetes promised to trade one of them if he stayed.

    "He was big then (6 feet 4) but really awkward," said Lightning assistant coach Dave MacQueen, coach of the Peetes at the time.

    He played nine games the first season. "And won none," Bierk said. "I was awful. Just awful."

    But Bierk never has been one to give up. He battles dyslexia, yet was the No. 2 man on the debate team at Trinity. His dad thinks he has the makings of a professional photographer. And, David adds, his son might be a better tennis player than a goalie.

    "There's nothing he won't do if you ask," MacQueen said. "His dedication in everything he does is what makes him so enjoyable to coach."

    He played 35 games his second season at Peterborough. A year later, he had his breakthrough season, taking the Peetes to the Memorial Cup (Canadian junior hockey) finals.

    "In the semifinals, Zac's brother Sebastian comes into the room like an hour before the game, and he shakes my hand, and he's just bouncing off the walls," MacQueen said. "The GM had to come in and tell him, "Hey, we gotta get ready here.' And he says, "Oh, yeah, hey, okay!' And he's bouncing off the walls still. We go out for the national anthem, and he's swinging the microphone around, and he does this heavy rock version of the anthem. And he looks straight at Zac the whole time. The crowd is going wild. Then during the game, we score, and I feel the glass shaking behind me. I turn around, and there's Sebastian, shaking the glass. He had the crowd going wild.

    "After we won, the guy jumps over the glass and plants a huge kiss on Zac, who was the No. 1 star of the game, right there on the ice. What a night."

    A few weeks later, Bierk thought he would be taken in the fourth or fifth round of the 1995 draft in Edmonton. When the sixth round passed and his name hadn't been called, he left, ending up alone in a pool hall somewhere on the outskirts of Edmonton. When he returned some 41/2 hours later, his dad gave him a Lightning jersey. Tampa Bay had selected him in the ninth round.

    Then he went out and became the OHL's goalie of the year last season. This season he likely will play for Adirondack, the Lightning's minor-league affiliate.

    "He's got a bright future," Lightning coach Terry Crisp said. "You look at his talent and his size, and you can't help but make comparisons to (Daren) Puppa."

    Being compared to Puppa might rattle some 20-year-olds. But Bierk has spent most of his life being compared with his brother and sister.

    "And he's never felt pressure from that," David said. "If I was going to put any pressure on my kids, I would have made them go to university. Instead, none went to university, and look where they are. They picked careers that are incredibly rewarding, but as a parent, there are long-term concerns. I want them to be happy in 10 years. ... I believe Zac will make it. He has the talent and dedication it takes. I know what it takes, and I see it in him. He will make it."

    His professional career begins tonight. He'll be in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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