Swapping his blades for a saw Love of woodworking takes edge off sudden exit from pro-hockey career

During his first shift of an American Hockey League game between the Iowa Wild and the Grand Rapids Griffins on March 11, 2020, Wild forward Mike Liambas was skating toward a Griffins player preparing to fire the puck into the Wild zone. Liambas thrust his stick out, in an attempt to block or deflect his opponent’s pass, at which point his world changed, in a heartbeat.

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During his first shift of an American Hockey League game between the Iowa Wild and the Grand Rapids Griffins on March 11, 2020, Wild forward Mike Liambas was skating toward a Griffins player preparing to fire the puck into the Wild zone. Liambas thrust his stick out, in an attempt to block or deflect his opponent’s pass, at which point his world changed, in a heartbeat.

Liambas played with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a rookie tournament in 2010. (Dave Chidley / The Canadian Press files)

“I’m only telling you what I’ve been told, or what I know from watching the video, because not only don’t I remember getting hit, I don’t recall that day’s morning skate, putting on my equipment, taking warm-ups… zilch,” says Liambas, who, during his professional career, spent 10 seasons bouncing around the International, East Coast and American hockey leagues, in addition to having “a cup of coffee” in the NHL, where he dressed for one game with the Nashville Predators and seven with the Anaheim Ducks.

“When I reached out with my stick, I left my face exposed,” he continues, getting out of his chair, to demonstrate what he understands to have occurred. “He thought I was going to finish my check, which is fair, so he raised his arms, catching me square on the chin.”

Liambas rose to his feet following the collision, only to crumple back to the ice. That occurred again, before he was escorted to the bench, by two of his teammates.

“I was being assessed (for a concussion), but when I asked one of the guys what position I was — three times — they could tell I was in trouble,” he says, returning to his seat.

Almost three years to the day of that fateful match, the 34-year-old married father of two boys, who met his Winnipeg-born wife Tamara in 2015, was putting the finishing touches on a live-edge, epoxy-resin wood coffee table and matching end tables. He constructed the eye-catching units under the banner Nomadic Designs, the boutique carpentry business he started during the 2019 off-season, and founded in earnest the next summer, after doctors recommended he hang up his skates, for good.

Mike Liambis founded his business, Nomadic Designs, after a 10-year hockey career. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I was in a pretty shitty state during my transition out of hockey, and woodworking, which I’d always enjoyed, saved me,” he says, parked in front of a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, one of the many “toys” populating his 2,700-square-foot shop, located on the lower level of a Dufferin Avenue warehouse.

“Before this, I was on Century (Street), where I’d show up at 5:30 (a.m.), every day, waiting for my buddies, who gifted me space for free, to let me in. I wasn’t in a good place, mentally, but having somewhere to go and keep busy did wonders for my state of mind.”

Liambas, who underwent 12 separate surgeries during his playing days, can’t think of a period in his life when he didn’t enjoy working with his hands. Born and raised in Woodbridge, Ont., the second oldest of three brothers guesses he was eight years old when he traded in his Lego blocks for a fleet of remote-controlled planes, trains and automobiles, which he built piece by piece, screw by screw.

Following the 2012-13 season, which he split between the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears and the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, he returned to live at his parents’ place, near Toronto. One morning, he and his mother were chatting over coffee. She mentioned she was planning to purchase a new, wood-framed mirror, and handed over her phone, to show him a photo of the model she’d picked out. Don’t waste your gas, he told her; give him a week, and he’d do it, himself.

About the only hockey Liambas plays now involves shooting pucks into an old laundry dryer in his shop. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Had he ever made a mirror before? No. Did he know where to start? Nuh-uh. Except after googling instructions online, he duplicated precisely what she was interested in, in a matter of days.

“From there, I began picking up tools and supplies, and that’s when my love of woodworking really kicked in,” he says.

Photos from Liambas's time with the Predators adorn a door in his workshop. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Back to the devastating hit he spoke of earlier: A few hours after getting his bell rung, Liambas was on the team bus, headed back to Des Moines. Around midnight, he called Tamara, to say, “Honey, I think I just played my last hockey game.”

As it turned out, the AHL, along with its parent league, the NHL, shut down the next morning, owing to the onset of COVID-19 restrictions. That caused the two of them, along with their then one-year-old son Bodhi, to hop in the car, to make the 12-hour drive to Winnipeg, where he would decide what his next steps should be. (Although they’ve long referred to themselves as married, Mike and Tamara will officially tie the knot this summer, in the backyard of their home in Headingley.)

Phrasing it “a completely irresponsible decision,” Liambas says the moment pro hockey received a green light to resume that fall, he announced, “F— it, I wanna play.” After all, a two-year, six-figure deal to suit up for the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, was on the table, and since “Cali is the best place in the world to play hockey,” he signed on the dotted line.

“But as soon as I started training, the headaches came back. I was feeling more and more anxious, until I finally told myself, ‘that’s it,’” he says, leaning back in his chair. He instructed his agent to have the contract terminated. Following that, a physician associated with the National Hockey League Players’ Association referred him to the Pan Am Clinic, where he underwent treatment for two years, to address his symptoms.

Mike Liambis, owner of Nomadic Designs, gets busy in his workshop at 740 Dufferin Avenue. Liambis founded the business in 2020, after injury forced a sudden end to his 10-year hockey career. Liambis credits his love for woodworking for helping him through that difficult transition. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press )

Nomadic Designs, a tag Liambas chose as a nod to his journeyman status as a hockey player, got its start with personalized cribbage boards, for buddies he’d lined up alongside or against, such as the Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Reaves, the Nashville Predators’ Colton Sissons and Manitoba Moose captain Jimmy Ogilny. As he began to gain confidence in his ability, he expanded his line to include charcuterie boards and bath boards, the latter of which can be used to hold a book or glass of wine, while one is soaking in the tub.

(Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Liambas, who works full-time as a marketing manager for BioSteel, a Canadian sports-drink company that has contracts with 28 NHL franchises, including the Winnipeg Jets, says things really took off, woodworking-wise, in 2021, when a friend associated with Bruno’s Fine Foods in Toronto, placed a sizable order for butcher blocks, to sell at its four Ontario locations.

Wine storage units came next, followed by dressers, credenzas and coffee tables. Last summer, he entered into a partnership with Urban Lumber, a business the Free Press profiled in September 2022 that salvages Winnipeg’s diseased trees, by stripping the affected bark, and making the resulting lumber available for re-purposing. That means if you want a backyard picnic table fashioned out of wood from your, well, neck of the woods, Liambas (who credits his wife’s cousin Brent Morden, a Red Seal cabinetry maker, for teaching him “an absolute ton” when they were sharing the Dufferin premises) is your guy.

Liambas got his start making personalized cribbage boards for his friends but has since moved on to designing and building dressers, credenzas and coffee tables. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Liambas’s stated goal is to take on a handful of large, commissioned projects each year, around fashioning smaller, home-decor items. A coffee table such as the one he recently completed can take up to eight weeks to do. Multiply that by six assignments, and that’s close to 52 weeks of cutting and sanding, around his BioSteel and parenting responsibilities, he says.

“Plus, I never want to rush a project. I still consider this a hobby, even though I’ve invested a fair bit into tools and machinery and such,” he says, noting Tamara is largely responsible for ensuring his website and Instagram feed are up to date. “So while it would be nice to make more money from Nomadic Designs, I never want to think of it as going to work, so to speak.”

Liambas suited up with the Minnesota Wild for a preseason game in Winnipeg in 2019. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Finally, Liambas laughs when it’s mentioned that a Wikipedia page lists him as an “unrestricted free agent.” Technically, that’s true, he allows, but about the only hockey he plays nowadays is when he’s taking a breather from the nailer or drill-press, and retreats to a dusty corner of the workshop, where a few game-used sticks are leaning against a stone column.

“Ever see that Sidney Crosby commercial, the one where he’s firing pucks into a dryer, to work on his accuracy?” he says, positioning himself a few metres away from a yellowish-green clothes dryer that is sporting too many dents to count.

“Ha, still got it,” he shouts, upon “scoring,” three times in a row.

“In hockey, they always talk about adding tools to your belt, to improve your game. That was definitely the case with me, either by learning how to kill penalties or take face-offs… whatever. Here I’m doing the same thing — adding tools to my belt — only literally. Funny, huh?”

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David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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