01/05/2011 12:01 AM -
Brandon Straub earned a standard player’s contract with the Griffins by overcoming the odds.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”
Success, it has been said, is measured not by what one accomplishes, but by the opposition one encounters and the courage one must summon to overcome the odds.
In other words, it is the epitome of the belief “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” a contention that Griffins forward Brandon Straub would not argue against.
Straub knows his hockey career could have been over a couple of times had he not persevered and showed the kind of determination that has enabled him to triumph over various difficulties and distractions.
Nothing sharpened his focus more than a calamity that befell his family when his father lost his eyesight after something went horribly wrong during a routine procedure to repair vertebrae in his back.
Straub was in his freshman year of high school in Vail, Colo., having been recruited to play midget AAA hockey there. His parents had given their blessing for him to leave their Colorado Springs home and live with a host family, but his father’s circumstances caused him to question his move.
“I came home for two weeks, but my parents more or less forced me to go back,” he recalled. “I was ready to quit and just stay home, but they wanted me to finish the year in Vail.”
All Straub could think about was how his family needed him. “When something like that happens, it’s almost immediate,” he said. “Everyone just wanted to do what they could to help get my dad back on his feet.”
It was his father who convinced him to return to Vail the following fall. He recognized his son’s passion for hockey and did not want to rob him of the chance to chase the dream. “It put things in perspective, for sure,” Straub said. “I think it helped me mature and grow up almost overnight.”
Straub found motivation in his father’s struggle, watching how much his father had to work just to regain the ability to do things that had been so simple before the accident.
“The way he bounced back was amazing,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone so strong and so positive in my life. He still tries everything. Within a few years of his surgery, he was waterskiing and snowskiing with a guide. The things he does are amazing. It gives me motivation to this day.”
Straub, who graduated from Battle Mountain High School, signed to play for the Tulsa Crude in the U.S. Hockey League in 2001, but the team eventually folded. “Knowing your team is going under is really hard,” he said. “Guys are playing just to get picked up for next season, so you stick together because, at that point, you only have your teammates.”
He found a spot to play on Vancouver Island – “You don’t see the sun a lot in the winter, but it’s gorgeous, surrounded by water and green year-round,” he says – and was named the most valuable defenseman for the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League.
Despite the honor, he couldn’t land a scholarship to Colorado College in his hometown, so he accepted an offer to play hockey for the University of Findlay in Ohio. Midway through his freshman year in 2003-04, the school announced it was dropping its hockey program.
“We decided all we could do was to continue to go out and win games for each other,” he said. “We wanted to be able to feel good about ourselves, because that’s all we really had. It was just a matter of everyone buying in and doing it for the team.”
The situation was unusual, with Findlay players trying to impress their opponents in hopes of being recruited after the season.
Straub ultimately was offered that scholarship to Colorado College, where he would play the next three seasons (2004-07), eventually becoming a team captain like his Findlay teammates Mike Batovanja (Michigan Tech) and Kenny Macaulay (Vermont).
“Colorado College is where I always wanted to play when I was growing up,” he said. “It really was a no-brainer to go back home and play Fridays and Saturdays at home in front of everybody I knew, then go to my parents for dinner on Sunday. It was very rewarding.”
He realized another dream when he was invited as an undrafted free agent to the Colorado Avalanche’s 2007 rookie camp and then spent a couple of days in the NHL team’s regular camp, even playing in the club’s intrasquad Burgundy scrimmage.
“If there’s ever one place you’d want to play when you’re growing up, it’s your home state team,” he said. “It was awesome, a memorable experience that I’ll be able to someday tell to my kids and grandkids.”
Straub was paired defensively with former Michigan State University standout John-Michael Liles, who helped ease the rookie’s nerves and offered helpful pointers and tips. From all indications, he fared well.
“He got our attention in rookie camp,” then-Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “I didn’t know that much about him, but he showed his versatility and he was being active in the game. I thought he did a nice job.”
His play earned him a chance to play with the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters. He saw action in nine games with the Monsters but spent most of the 2007-08 season playing for the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs.
The Chiefs played their home games in the historic 3,745-seat Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, Pa., where most of the hockey scenes in the movie Slap Shot were filmed. Steve Carlson, one of the Hanson Brothers, was the team’s original coach.
“Johnstown was a very unique place,” Straub said. “You could sense the history with the team and the pride the fans took in having the Chiefs there. It made for a very special place to play, despite what (the arena, built in 1950) might have looked like on the exterior.”
Shuttling back and forth between Cleveland (where Lake Erie calls home) and Johnstown helped Straub’s development. “I think I was up and down five or six times between Lake Erie and Johnstown, and that experience made me mature as a pro very quickly,” he said. “I think I learned quite a bit.”
He started the 2008-09 season with the Quad City Flames, but once again spent most of the year in the ECHL, this time playing for the Las Vegas Wranglers.
“Las Vegas was a lot of fun,” he said. “We had a gorgeous rink that was two minutes off the strip, so there was no shortage of things to do during your time off. You never get bored, that’s for sure.”
As a result, the Wranglers had a pretty good home record. “When away teams would come into town, they tended to go out a little more than they should,” said Straub, who enjoyed playing roulette, craps and blackjack himself.
Unable to land a permanent spot in the AHL – although he did play two games with the Houston Aeros in 2009-10 – Straub spent most of last season with the Allen (Texas) Americans of the Central Hockey League.
Rather than look at his situation as a step down, he saw it as an opportunity. A natural defenseman, he had started to play forward and, after talking with his agent and family, realized that he might be able to prolong his career by making himself more versatile to teams.
“Learning to play forward, I was able to make mistakes that I wouldn’t have been able to get away with at higher levels,” he said. “I was able to work on two positions, where I would have been stuck in one role at a higher level.”
Straub admits that bouncing between different cities and different levels has presented a challenge, but it’s one that he hopes will ultimately make him a stronger hockey player.
“With a new team, you have a very small window to try to make an impression, so you try to take advantage of every opportunity you get,” he said. “There were some places where I’ve felt great and felt like I really did my job, and then there were other times when I felt like I could have done more. Those are the tough ones to swallow, especially after you get sent down.”
He had planned to play this season in Allen until the Griffins offered him a professional tryout in October. He signed his first AHL contract with the team in November and now looks to establish himself as a dependable forward.
“I really enjoy playing forward,” he said. “My passion was always defense and I loved being a defenseman, but there’s something about playing forward that’s a lot of fun. It’s a position where it’s easier to spark the team, whether you’re going hard to the net and scoring or just finishing big checks. Being able to create energy that way is very exciting. I’m growing to enjoy it a lot.”
Most of all, he is excited about being able to prove himself at the AHL level.
“I’ve played in some very cool spots, but my wife has been very patient and has dealt with a lot since I started taking my tour around North America,” he said.
Last July, Straub married his longtime girlfriend, Sandra “Sandy” Rucker, a figure skater who was the 2005 U.S. Junior National Champion before a back injury ended her competitive career. She did much of the skating for actress Michelle Trachtenberg in the movie Ice Princess and was a featured performer in the West Coast cast of Disney's High School Musical: The Ice Tour in 2007.
The couple met in Colorado Springs while Straub was in college. His team skated at the club where Rucker practiced. “She’s definitely the better skater,” he said, noting that she plans a career in coaching.
Meanwhile, Straub is doing what he can to make his family proud. His father has partial sight in one eye. Surgeons cut a hole in the center of his father’s left eye, giving him 3 degrees of the usual 180 degrees of sight.
“If you looked through a coffee straw out of your left eye, that’s about what he sees,” he said. “If he sits up high enough in the stands and is told where I’m at, he can watch me while I skate around the ice.”
As far as Straub is concerned, there’s nothing better than a smile on his father’s face. “My dad was the biggest role model of my life before the surgery and now he’s a huge inspiration, too,” he said.
“How he handles everything day-to-day is amazing. This is my fourth year as a pro now, and every year I’ve been up and down, up and down, just trying to stick. I’ve never been quite able to do it and to finally have it happen here… well, it’s a great feeling."
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