Bemidji State goalie Dan Bakala is fluent in two different languages.
What makes Bakala's bilingual skill unique is his second language: English.
The Calgary, Alberta native is the son of Polish immigrants and spoke Polish at home before learning English in Canadian grade school.
"I was really little and all I can remember was those English classes in school and in elementary going to the ESL classes," Bakala said. "Three or four of us would go and learn how to read and write."
Bakala's parents, Henryk and Ursula, emigrated from Poland to Canada in their late 20s and settled in a small Polish community in Calgary. Bakala also has an aunt who resides in Calgary and an uncle in Montreal. The bulk of his extended family lives in Poland.
"Most of my friends and family are Polish and still live there (in Calgary). I've been to Poland twice so I don't get to see them very often," Bakala said.
Bakala grew up with other children of Polish immigrants and few of his friends took interest in Canada's pastime.
"I was pretty much the only one growing up playing hockey," Bakala said. "I was lucky because my dad played with a club in Poland and knew some of the coaches. There was not many people playing in Poland at that time ... I just fell into it (being a goalie). There was something about it that intrigued me and I just wanted to play it in the backyard or on the ice. Finally my dad bought me my first set and I went from there."
Bakala played 122 games for the Calgary Royals of the Alberta Junior Hockey League before coming to Bemidji State.
When he came to campus in 2008, he was the third string goalie behind sophomore Matt Dalton and senior Orlando Alamano during the historic Frozen Four season. He was undefeated in the three exhibition games he appeared in.
When Dalton signed a professional contract with the Boston Bruins organization in the offseason, Bakala became the goalie with the most experience on the roster.
He played in 30 of BSU's 36 games last season as a sophomore and matched the program's single-season win record set by Dalton the season before. Bakala won 19 games in an All-CHA Academic and All-CHA First Team season.
Much like the rest of his teammates, Bakala fought through adversity earlier this season in the program's transition from College Hockey America to the elite Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Beavers went 2-8-1 through the first 11 games and after appearing in the opening-weekend sweep against North Dakota, Bakala alternated starts with backup Mathieu Dugas for a month.
Bemidji State's fortunes - and Bakala's - turned around with a win over Northern Michigan Nov. 27 and the sweep over then No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha the following weekend. Bakala was named the WCHA Co-Defensive Player of the Week and the Inside College Hockey National Player of the Week for his performance against Omaha.
The Beavers are 7-3-1 in the last 11 games and are 5-1-1 since the holiday break. BSU opened the second half of the season with victories over No. 18 Ferris State and No. 12 Union to win the Mariucci Classic championship. Bakala made 65 saves in those wins, was named the tournament's most valuable player and was also named the WCHA's Defensive Player of the Week.
"He's stopping the puck and that's the biggest thing," BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. "But most importantly he's made some big saves and he's making saves that obviously are game-saving saves for Bemidji State. Good goalies do that and if you're going to win games in the WCHA your goaltender has to be your best player."
Bakala said he is feeling more comfortable and confident between the pipes.
"I couldn't tell you," Bakala answered when asked what has been different with his game recently. "It seems like bounces are going your way more and I don't feel like I'm fighting it as much. Obviously the whole team in front of me is starting to play a lot better too."
Bakala was strong in last weekend's series at Nebraska-Omaha and the Beavers needed all of 66 of his saves to leave the weekend with three of the possible four standings points in two pressure-packed overtime games.
Bakala has made over 30 saves in four of the five games he has appeared in since the holiday break.
"You don't really think about it at the time," Bakala said about the pressure late in the games at Omaha. "You just have to let your skill and whatever you learned and your knowledge of the game take over."
Bakala's recent performances are a result of experience and growing his game through the Beaver hockey program.
"I think I'm just a little more calm, a little more mature as a player and making sure some of the little things don't get to you," Bakala said. "I'm trying to figure out ways to keep momentum going and keep playing well through the whole time and avoid the highs and the lows."
Bakala has fit in well with the hockey program and is pursuing a sports management degree at Bemidji State. He feels grateful for the experience he's gaining in Bemidji as a student, a hockey player and as a resident of the city.
"It's been good. I think it is one of the best things I've had happen to me," Bakala said. "It has helped me grow as a player. The community itself is a very tight-knit group. It's also nice to be on a team where everyone's goal is the same. In juniors it was different. Everyone's got the same work ethic to play here and it helps you as a player to grow."
The Beavers (9-11-2 overall, 5-9-2 WCHA) continue WCHA play this weekend against St. Cloud State (9-11-2 WCHA, 5-8-1 WCHA) at The Sanford Center. Game times are Friday at 7:37 p.m. and Saturday at 7:07 p.m.