Brendan Brooks: 1000 games and a lifetime of memories
Brendan Brooks' hockey career reads like a road map of north America.
A two-way NHL contract in his kitbag took him from Ontario to Illinois, Massachussets, Ohio, Cinncinnati, New Hampshire, Michigan, Manitoba and California – some more than once – before switching to the top leagues in Europe.
Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Germany beckoned – there was even a brief six-game stop over in Igoldstadt, twin town of Kirkcaldy – before arriving in the UK for the 2015-16 season.
Twenty-four clubs, 22 seasons, ten leagues in north America and Europe, and now 1000 games.
A landmark few players reach; lifelong friendships forged in the cameraderie of the locker room that endure to this day.
He’s skated in the AHL, IHL, ECHL, UHL and OHL, and came as close as anyone to adding the NHL to that list.
‘‘I was signed with Detroit and was the last right-winger sent down to the AHL. At St Louis, I went to Worcester and had 20 goals and some big fights - and that was a lot more important back then than it is now.
‘‘I got a walk-in trial with LA Kings and I ended up signing a contract, I went to rookie camp and had a great time, and then on to Europe for a tournament, and an invite to the main camp where I ended up with a contract.
‘‘The opportunities were there. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, but I was about as close as you can get.
‘‘I wouldn’t change anything. Europe opened and gave me an amazing career.’’
Moving to new towns and new teams is part of a pro hockey player’s life, but it also requires a willingness to relocate and find their feet in strange places, often far from home.
The friendships forged off the ice are vital to success on it.
‘‘You pack up, leave everything and everyone you grew up with at home, and you travel somewhere new every year,’’ he said.
“You go to where the best opportunities are to make the NHL – that’s the goal. That means moving a lot. You see some amazing places, some maybe not so, but that’s the sacrifice.
‘‘So, to have the support of your team-mates, your family, your wife is number one.’’
Brooks’ journey from St. Catharines, the largest city in Canada’s Niagara region, has taken him across north America, and hockey has been his life from an early age.
He first laced up a pair of skates aged three or four, and practice quickly became part of his daily life.
‘‘Every morning I’d get up early, and most times I’d be dressed ready to go apart from my skates. I never complained about having to get up so early to play hockey. That’s all I wanted to do.’’
Aged 15 he was playing with Caledon Canadians in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. His line-mate was Trevor Gillies.
The duo are the only players still lacing up from that roster; Gillies a tougher than tough NHLer he has known longer than almost anyone in the game as someone who ‘‘always makes me laugh.’’
He continued: ‘‘I had schools and universities trying to sign me up for a full scholarship.
‘‘That’s where I felt I had the talent it took to go further. From 15 to 17 these are big years when you have to ask yourself how serious do you want to take this.
‘‘For me, I wanted to play hockey and nothing else.”
The connections made from those early morning training sessions in St Catharines started to shape a fledging career.
They included Bruce Boudreau, currently head coach at NHL side, Minnesota Wild.
With Brooks on the radar of a number of clubs in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) he sought his counsel.
‘‘He has been a huge part of my career on and off the ice,’’ he said. ‘‘He gave me my first shot pro.
‘‘The team was not making the play-offs, and he gave me a call to come and play and see what I could do.
‘‘ I played one game got one point, and next year I turned pro with Quad City.
‘‘He helped me to get there, he helped me get my first AHL team, he got me a week’s trial with LA Kings.’’
That point gained icing once for the Mississippi Ice Wolves in 1997/98 opened the doors to life as a pro hockey player with Quad City Mallards.
Illinois beckoned, still a teenager, playing in front of huge crowds in an amazing arena packed with 9-10,000 fans every night.
‘‘I was still a kid and didn’t know what to expect, but it was a great start for me professionally.’’
With the guidance of Paul Gillis, who went on to captain Quebec Nordiques, a young Brooks made his mark.
‘‘I was the youngest on the team by six or seven years,’’ he said. ‘‘Still to this day I think I was the youngest to play in that league.
‘‘Paul took me under his wing and taught me what I needed to know.
‘‘To get that input, and have that influence was just great – ‘I’ve been very, very fortunate throughout my career to have had diffferent coaches and colleagues around the leagues who have been so good to me.
‘‘At Worcester Ice Cats in the AHL I was under contact with St Louis Blues, and had some friends from home on the team.
‘‘We were not expected to do much, but we made it to the conference finals. We lost but we surpassed everyone’s expectations – we were a hard working, good, fun, young team.’’
Brooks’ north American travels wound up with Mantoba Moose in 2006/07 – he’d previously iced with, among others, Dayton Bombers, Lowell Lock Monsters, Reading Royals, Peoria Rivermen, Grand Rapids Griffins, and the wonderfully named Macon Whoopee – when he decided it was time for a new start.
‘‘I had been on an NHL two-way contract for a long time, and I felt I deserved a one-way full-time deal,’’ he said.
‘‘I didn’t see it happening and I wasn’t enjoying the game as much with some things going on behind the scenes.
“I wanted a change and went to Norway which was an amazing experience – I broke some records in the league.’’
His next stop was Switzerland in 2009 icing with the Langnau Tigers where he spent two seasons.
By 2012 he was plying his trade in the DEL in Germany, first with Hamburg Freezers and then Iserlohn Roosters.
‘‘To go to a big team in the DEL was huge. We had 15,000 fans at every game.
‘‘It was also where I got my first major injury after playing for so many years. That was a different experience – I had to learn how to adjust to a big injury – but it was still a great place to play, and I managed to make it back for the play-offs.
‘‘It’s a memory I won’t ever forget because of the injury.’’
In Ingolstadt, Brooks played on the team which was defeated in the championship finals before making the move to the UK with Braehead Clan thanks to another long-standing connection.
Ryan Finnerty, head coach, persuaded him to make the move into the EIHL. They were team-mates with Peoria Rivermen, the Illinois based ECHL team, in 2002-03.
‘‘Ryan had been trying to get me for a while, but I didn’t want to make the move at that time.
‘‘I spoke with some guys who had been over here and they said how much better the league had become, so when the opportunity came up I decided to take it. I’ve no regrets. I love playing here.’’
There was also a personal reason for taking his career to these shores – his family roots. His mum hails from from Yorkshire.
‘‘I always knew I would come here at some point. To be in the UK, where she was born, is pretty huge.
‘‘My family came over last year and were able to experience it – it was my mum’s first time back since she was a child, so that was pretty special.’’
Those personal links, the coaches who became mentors, and the players who became lifelong friends, all sit at the very heart of Brooks’ career which has spanned two decades.
The love of the game still inspires him to lace up and skate, and his 1000th game is a landmark he will savour with family in the stands, surrounded by his team-mates and fans – and achieving it in the oldest rink in the UK, and against his old club, just adds to the occasion.
‘‘I’ve been around long enough to separate the emotion from the game,’’ he said.
‘‘The emotion of it will probably come when I take a moment afterwards.
‘‘When I started out I never thought about getting to 1000 games,
‘‘You never know in this game when it will end. I’m pretty lucky and fortunate to have done it.’’
And having passed a landmark only a few players attain, Brooks has no plans to hang them up. The joy of playing hockey still burns bright.
‘I’ve never put a number on it in terms of games played. Is 1500 possible?’’ he laughed. ‘‘I’ve never got the feeling ‘this is it’ – that may come next year or three years from now.
‘‘You cannot replicate the bonds that are made in a dressing-room of 20 guys who are your friends. That’s special.
‘‘You are a family. You get to hang out with them every day.
‘‘And doing it here – the whole history of this rink – of being a pro hockey player, and the feelings they bring when you step on to the ice are special.
‘‘When you turn pro it is amazing. It’s a unique feeling.
‘‘And wherever you go the fans are so willing to help out and do so much for you.
‘‘That’s something I will always remember.’’
>> Read more tributes to Brendan Brooks in Fife Flyers match programme on Sunday. On sale, priced £3.