Dane Birks learned to ‘become independent’ through ranching
Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Dane Birks grew up in the small town of Merritt, B.C., where his family had a ranch.
After two years in the BCHL for his hometown Centennials, Birks journeyed to Michigan Tech to play college hockey for the Huskies. Arriving in Houghton one year after the Pens selected him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, he had a false start to his NCAA career, sitting out 2014-15 due to academic ineligibility.
Since then, though, the junior defenseman has become a staple in MTU’s resurgence, which translated to its second NCAA tournament bids in three years in 2017. He has also been a regular at Pittsburgh’s prospect camps each summer.
Birks’ entry into the Penguins pipeline coincided with his family’s transition out of ranching. Even so, his move across one national border and three time zones to the student-athlete lifestyle has not been as foreign as one would think. The minimal environment and small-town community around MTU (estimated population: 7,987) are quite conducive to the qualities Birks honed on those laborious days in Merritt (estimated population: 7,139).
For all of the depictions of the archetypal Canadian farm boy chasing his dream through the junior ranks, not many upper-level hockey players have a ranching background. But Birks’ story speaks to the resiliency one hones through that upbringing.
Pucks and Recreation got a question-and-answer session with Birks to describe life growing up on a ranch and making the transition from Western Canada to Middle America.
P&R: How did you get into ranching? Did you grow up on a ranch, or did your dad grow up on a ranch?
Birks: My parents did grow up on a ranch with my grandparents, on the same property. My parents got divorced, and so my mom stayed on the ranch and my dad moved on. From there, I just kind of helped out on the ranch with my grandparents.
P&R: When was the last time you actually spent a full summer out on the ranch?
Birks: Probably 2013 was fully spent there. Recently we just sold the ranch. My grandparents still live on about 1.6 acres of it. But since hockey became my priority, I just put my full focus to that and a little less to ranching.
P&R: So when you were growing up on the ranch, what was a day in the life?
Birks: For us, we raised cattle for other people. During the winter and the summer we’d put them in the range, go to cow camp and whatnot.
A normal day would be to get up early, get the tractors warmed up. Then go to the feed troughs and fill them with grain and hay. That’s pretty much all we did. We put some salt blocks out.
P&R: Do you know how many cattle you had?
Birks: About 3,500.
P&R: Across how many acres?
Birks: Across 168 or something like that.
P&R: What did growing up on a ranch teach you about being a good hockey player. Did it instill any other life lessons in you?
Birks: I think that lifestyle is a pretty down-to-earth way of living. You have to earn everything that you work for. Everything doesn’t come easy and you have to become independent. At that point you have to rely on your resources, such as the land, and you have to become successful for you and your family.
P&R: What was it like moving all the way over to Michigan from BC to play college hockey?
Birks: Well, Merritt in BC is pretty much the same kind of lifestyle as here. It’s small-town living and not very much to offer, so it was kind of an easy transfer.
P&R: So do any of your teammates know of you living on or growing up on a ranch?
Birks: I have no idea if anyone knows (laughs).
P&R: Is there anything schoolwork-wise that you relate back to ranching?
Birks: No, not necessarily. More so back to playing in juniors.