Lessons Learned From a Career in Hockey

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Alright, kids.

I’m retiring after 15 years as a professional hockey player, and if there’s just one piece of advice I’d like to leave you with, it’s this:

If you’re going to miss curfew, miss it big.

I learned that one the hard way.

One night, when we were playing on the road, Marty Turco (sorry for selling you out bud, it’s my story) and I got back to the team hotel at 11:40 or 11:45 in the evening. Curfew was 11:30.

Now, we’d shared a few adult beverages, and as a result I felt particularly inspired by these big, wide pillars located in the hotel lobby. This led me to leap onto one of the pillars, arms and legs spread wide, in a sort-of effort to mimic Spider-Man. I proceeded to climb up and slowly slide down those pillars, putting on a real show — to the great delight of Marty, of course. I was getting pretty into it, and then as I snuck around one of the pillars in my Spidey stance … and right there was the head coach. And the GM. Watching my every move. Perfect.

Of course they were there. It was right after curfew. I never even gave myself an honest shot. Lesson learned.

I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes in my career — really simple ones, and really dumb ones (the story above included). But I think the key to a long career in hockey, or really in anything, is to never make the same one twice.

I think my earliest mistake was giving figure skating a go when I was four years old. Well, actually that was more of my mom’s decision. The logic was that it would prepare me better for when I did start hockey, and to that end I suppose you can’t argue with the results. But, oh, boy — did I suck at it. And, oh, shit — the outfits I wore. I’m just extremely thankful my teammates never got photographic evidence of that stuff. Not sure I would’ve survived that.

I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes in my career — really simple ones, and really dumb ones.

Carlyle, the town I’m from in Saskatchewan, had a population of about 1100 people. That’s a regular metropolis by Saskatchewan standards.

The best part about growing up in a small town: more ice time.

As a kid, my favorite player to watch was Brett Hull. I idolized the guy. I just loved the way he scored goals and the big grin he’d have on his face afterwards. He just displayed so much joy for the game.

He was hands down my favorite Canadian hockey player.

(You’re Canadian, Brett. Cut the B.S., just own it, man.)

I was always a good player as a teenager, but never really lit it up. On any team that I played for, I was usually the third or fourth-best guy. But when I was 15, the light switch magically came on and I scored 117 goals, with 72 assists in 60 games one season.

But the thing was, I was a Large Marge. My weight hovered around 230 pounds, which is, uh, on the heavy side for that age. So you can imagine what it looked like for this slob to be terrorizing all these kids half his size. This was definitely not an advantage I’d have forever.

When I went to Portland for my first year of juniors, the trainer, Innes Mackie, put me on the scale. I’ll never forget him looking me in the eye and then sliding the big weight across the beam … then looking back at me kind of confused before sliding the big weight over again.

It went on like that for a while before the thing leveled out. At that point, I was just dismissed back to my locker to wait.

A little while later, I’m sitting in my stall and Coach Peterson comes up to me, and he’s holding this roll of white tape. He calls me over and walks to a stationary bike, sticks some tape on it and writes my name.

“Brenden, congratulations, you’ve made the team. Now ride on this thing until Christmas.”

Once I got in shape, my play went to another level and that’s when the NHL dream became real. When the Dallas Stars called my name at the Draft, I really couldn’t have been any happier. I knew I was stepping onto a really great team. But I could have never imagined at that point how big of an impact the organization would have on my life. Some of my best memories that I’ll treasure my entire life happened while I was wearing a Stars uniform.

And, as I alluded to earlier, I made some pretty dumb mistakes as well.

When I first came into the league, my mouth was writing checks I couldn’t cash. I was chirping and running around like a dummy. We played a game against the Washington Capitals, and at the time, they had a forward named Chris Simon on their team. This guy was a heavyweight. And back when he had his hair down almost to his knees, he genuinely looked like someone who might actually kill you.

So I’m a 20-year-old kid, yapping away, and he comes up to me and says, “You’re not going to be breathing tomorrow if you open up your mouth one more time.”

There was no grin, nothing playful about it. He was serious.

The rest of the game, I avoided eye contact with him like I was cheating on a test. The only time I refused to lock eyes with a guy during my career. But I still think it was the right call.

Fortunately, I made most of my mistakes early on. I was really lucky to be surrounded by such a veteran team, so I did everything I could to fit in as fast as possible. They all wanted to make me better, which is how a healthy franchise should run. Everyone in that room was on the same page. We respected each other and respected the game. I was incredibly lucky to be taught how to be a professional from winners. Not everyone gets that, and it definitely made such a big difference in how my career panned out.

It really started at the top of the roster. Mike Modano sold hockey in Dallas on his pretty-boy image. But behind closed doors he was just a big kid. He worked so hard to get as good as he was, but was also such a fun person to be around. And he had this passion for the game that was contagious. When you have someone like that leading the way, it’s not difficult to buy into what the team is doing. Sharing the ice with him was truly a privilege.

I’m not sure who told him or how it got out, but somehow Brett knew that I had posters of him on my wall when I was growing up.

Of course, I think he would have preferred it if I had a sister who kept posters of him up on the wall, but he was stuck with me.

I love Brett. I really do. He’s one of my closest friends now.

And that’s really part of the magic of getting to play at this level. I was pretty much jumping up and down in my locker from excitement the first time I was near Hully. And then, I got to know him. I got to share the ice with him. We got to connect in a special way, and that admiration I had evolved into a mutual respect and eventually a really close friendship. That chubby kid growing up in Carlyle could have never guessed that one day he’d be linemates with his idol.

One thing you have to know about Brett, and he’ll be the first person to tell you this, his stick is always open. Pass it to him.

Of the many memories I have with him on the ice, there’s one in particular that cracks me up. He’d probably prefer for this story not to be in print, but Brett, this is my retirement letter, buddy.

So Ken Hitchcock has this loud, sort of whiny voice. Kind of reminds me of when Charlie Brown’s teacher is talking.

And during games he’s just going nonstop.

So we’re playing in Phoenix one night back when the Coyotes played at their old arena. Now at that place, they had the bench split up, so there was a spot where two people could sit, and then behind that was the long bench where the rest of the team sat. Why was it this way? No idea. It’s just how it was.

I was playing on a line with Modano and Hull in this particular game. We all know there’s no way our head coach Ken Hitchcock is going to be yelling at those two, so I was clearly going take the brunt of his punishment if things weren’t working out. Those are the breaks when you’re on the ice with two all-timers.

So we get out there for our first shift, and one of us turns the puck over. We get back to the bench, and Hitch just starts laying into me, using every word in the book. I’m just like, “Holy shit, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”

So we go out for another shift, screw something else up, and Hitch is searching for me. He finds me, and then starts chewing me out again. Then we go out for a third shift, and it’s another dud. But this time as we’re skating back to the bench, Hully turns to me and goes, “Hey, you come sit over here with me.” And I join him in the little two-person, love-seat area.

I’m just like, “Holy shit, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”

Meanwhile you can see — and you can hear — Hitch waddling around on the other side of the bench.

“Where’s Brenden? Where the hell’s Brenden?”

He finds me and he’s just all red. And I’m trying to be respectful, so I lean backwards to look him in the eye while he tells me how bad I am. But as I lean back, Hully leans back as well and blocks my view.

So I lean forward to try to see past him, and Hully moves forward and blocks me again.

I move back, Hully matches me. This keeps going. I can’t shake him.

And the entire time, Hitch is just getting more and more pissed. But I can’t make eye contact because Brett’s huge melon is in the way.

And Brett turns to me and says, “You tell that motherfucker to fuck off!”

Oh man, what a teammate.

I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish with the Stars and how I represented the franchise (despite the stories I’ve mentioned here). I’m honored that Doug Armstrong and Dave Tippett believed in me the way that they did during my career. Giving me the honor of being the captain of the team is something that I’ll always be thankful for. I never took that responsibility for granted.

Of course, committing to the Stars and being the captain never felt like a job because there are such good people here.

I have countless memories just from being in the general vicinity of Marty Turco. One of a kind, that guy. The two of us were veteran leaders together. Marty’s the opposite of me in a lot of ways. He was the outgoing guy and I was more on the quiet side. He did the talking for me. We made a pretty good team.

Most goalies are kind of quirky. A lot of them have certain superstitions or rituals before games. Some of them will freak out if you touch their gear, or will refuse to let anyone talk to them on game days. That kind of stuff. But Marty was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Before games he was completely off his rocker — in a fun way. Whatever the group was doing, Marty would always want to do it times 10.

I think someone lost a tooth once getting kicked in the mouth. It was ruthless and just so dumb.

We played this one game to warm up. It was a dumb game. I think we called it donkey ball.

O.K. – we definitely called it donkey ball. It’s basically a mix between soccer and volleyball. And this game resulted in countless collisions, concussions and broken toes. I think someone lost a tooth once getting kicked in the mouth. It was ruthless and just so dumb.

Before one game in Detroit, we were playing donkey ball to get warmed up. Now it’s worth keeping in mind that this was a big game for us because we didn’t really play that well against Detroit, particularly on the road. So we’re warming up with some donkey ball, and everyone’s way too into it. Once we finished up, Marty was super-hyped. He is just bouncing off the walls. After we are done playing, jogging through the concourse heading back to the locker room, I watched as Marty, who was sprinting full speed, proceeded to jump near the doorway, get more air than he bargained for and smoke his head right on the wall. It made one of the biggest smacking noises I’ve ever heard.

And no, to this day I do not know why he jumped. But that’s just Marty.

He fell to the ground like a ton of bricks and blood just started gushing from his head. Bleeding all over the floor, place looked like a crime scene.

At that point, I was conflicted. Honestly, wasn’t sure what to think. On one hand I’m pretty concerned, thinking, “Holy shit! I hope Marty’s not dead.” But on the other hand, I’m biting my lip and trying to keep myself from falling on the ground laughing because, “Holy shit! What an idiot!”

As it turned out, he was fine. They had to stuff a helmet on him with a bunch of gauze so he could do warm-ups. Looked like we were shooting on a mummy.

Then he went back into the locker room before puck drop and got stitched up. And get this: We won. At the Joe. With Marty rocking a head full of staples.

One of the big reasons I feel so fortunate to have spent most of my career with the Stars is that they truly have one of the finest organizations in the NHL. The people they have taking care of things off the ice are a big reason why guys like playing in Dallas.

Les Jackson, the assistant GM, has been with the organization since the team was in Minnesota. He likes to stay behind the scenes, but he’s so vital to the team’s success. The guy has such a remarkable eye for talent, and has been a great equalizer for us against teams in bigger markets. During my career, he was always around and wearing so many different hats. And he never asks for credit. People like that are usually the ones who deserve credit the most. I truly appreciate everything he’s done for me.

I’m also grateful to the training staff. These guys put in incredibly long hours, and haul our wet, stinky gear around with huge smiles on their faces the entire time. They put in the work so that we can just show up and play this fun game that we love. We don’t show them nearly as much appreciation as we should, but they’re a big part of what we do.

I’ll always be thankful for the fans who helped us build a hockey culture in Texas. Stars fans love the game for all the right reasons. I wanted to give them a Stanley Cup so, so badly. It just wasn’t in the cards, but I’ll always be proud of what we accomplished together.

My body’s been telling me the last couple of years that the end was near. I’d wake up in the morning and struggle to get my socks on. For a long time, I ignored that stuff because I knew what it meant. I can still think the game at a high level, but I just can’t keep up with the speed anymore. It’s amazing how much it’s changed since I came into the League. But I can tell you, my body might have deteriorated, but my passion never did.

You know, looking back on my career, a lot of the time I spent on the ice is a blur. The goals and the records are all things that might fade from my memory. But I’m always going to remember the times when I was sharing a laugh with my buddies while playing the game that I love.

It’s the people you surround yourself with that ultimately define your life. In a million years, I never figured I’d be so blessed as to learn how to play the game I love from my heroes. I just wish it hadn’t all gone by so fast. Now, as I step away, I’m extremely thankful for every opportunity I was given to make the most of myself during my career.

And also that I didn’t take to figure skating as a kid.

Letter to My Younger Self

Learn to repeat this over and over, like your own little mantra: He’s just too small. Oh yeah? F--- you. He’s just too small. Oh yeah? F--- you.

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