Three seasons after an injury nearly ended his hockey career, defenseman Robbie Bina is about to realize his boyhood dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
Born and raised in the hockey Mecca of Grand Forks, North Dakota, there was really never any doubt what he was going to do with his life nor was there a question that the University of North Dakota was going to be a part of it.
The diminutive blueliner will be long remembered by Fighting Sioux faithful. One reason would be his now legendary shorthanded goal against archrival Minnesota on Jan. 27, 2007 which he launched from deep in his own end and bounced past the goaltender.
The other reason is for his amazing return to the game after suffering a broken neck in his sophomore year.
It happened on March 18, 2005 during the WCHA Conference Playoffs against another heated rival, the Denver Pioneers. During the second period of their semi-final clash, with the Sioux about to be called for a penalty, the game took a decidedly ugly turn.
“The puck was coming around [the boards], it was a delayed penalty and I just went to touch it to get the whistle and then he kind of hit me from behind and I just went in head first and that’s about it I guess,” said Bina.
The Pioneers won the game and advanced to the Finals, but center Geoff Paukovich (EDM) was suspended by the WCHA after reviewing the hit. Denver would go on to capture the NCAA National Title that year with a 4-1 win over the Bina-less UND squad in the championship game.
Bina missed the rest of his sophomore year as well as the following campaign, but what could have ended as a tragic hockey story eventual became one of inspiration.
Despite the severity of the injury, including a crushed C-7 vertebrae, Bina says the early concerns that his hockey career was over were short lived.
“Just maybe the first couple of days when I found out how bad it was,” he admitted. “I talked to the doctor every day and he really made it sound like everything would be fine after the surgery and that I should take the year off and just go from there.”
So that’s what he did. Bina would spend the next year and a half wearing a neck brace, going through a long and arduous rehab schedule but never taking his eye off the goal. He knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel, just not how long that tunnel would last.
Through it all his teammates said he was always encouraging them, cheering them on from the stands and seldom seen without a smile. As it turns out, that was all part of Bina’s plan too.
“I wanted to keep my spirits up for me and for my team so that they didn’t have to worry about anything,” he explained. “It was [beneficial] mentally for me too, staying positive and trying to get ready to go.
Nineteen months later on Oct. 1, 2006 Bina made his triumphant return to the ice during an exhibition game against the visiting University of Manitoba Bisons (CIS). You can imagine what that night meant for Bina, his teammates and for the Sioux supporters as well.
“It was great to be back out there in front of the fans and with my teammates again,” he emphatically said. “The fans gave me a standing ovation when my name got called, it sent shivers down my back. It was just a great, great day.”
A look at Bina’s college career stats and it’s somewhat surprising to see the massive jump in production he had after the long layoff. While he only managed nine points in his sophomore season, he peaked at 10 goals and 32 points as a junior. According to the player, in an odd way the injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
“I kind of think that because I was able to take that one year off that I matured a little bit more,” he explained. “Being in the stands and watching the game helped me look at little things here and there and helped me add to my game.”
Bina returned to UND for his senior year and helped the team return to the Frozen Four for the fourth year in a row. Unfortunately for the Sioux, Boston College was not to be denied the national championship.
With his college life now behind him, Bina is looking forward to the next stage of his hockey career. That will begin about a week from now when he takes to the ice in Edmonton after signing a contract with the AHL Springfield Falcons, affiliate of the Oilers, in July. Asked what he’s expecting from his first pro camp experience, the 25-year-old admitted he’s expecting some jitters.
“Probably a little bit of nerves but I’ll just kind of focus on what I’ve got to do and just stay mentally stable,” he said. “I want to play at the highest level that I’m capable of this year, have a good season and play solidly.”
Few expect the 5’8, 180 lb rearguard to factor much into Edmonton’s NHL plans but playing in AHL Springfield with the Falcons would provide its own thrill. It’s expected that Sioux teammate Taylor Chorney will at least begin the year in Springfield, which would help make that transition to the pro level a bit easier for Bina.
“For the second half of last year we were [defensive partners],” Bina said of Chorney. “That’s a huge bonus, maybe getting to play with someone that you’ve played with before and knowing how to play with him. It would be great to get to play with him for another year.”
Ironically, Paukovich, the one who infamously hit Bina, is another potential teammate. Asked if he had any concerns about the possibility of sharing a locker room with the guy who almost accidentally ended his career, Bina took the high road.
“No, I just put that stuff behind me now and focus on the future,” he said.
The future will begin on Sept. 13 when the Edmonton Oilers open rookie camp in nearby Camrose, Alberta. If nothing else, Bina’s success story should be proof enough for everyone that dreams, no matter what obstacles life puts in the way, can in fact come true.