Story and photos by Mark Newman.
Most hockey players go their entire careers without ever winning a championship. Wade Brookbank had the good fortune to win not one but two league titles -- and in the same months time. The Griffins defenseman split last season between the Oklahoma City Blazers in the Central Hockey League and the Orlando Solar Bears in the International Hockey League. Obviously playing in the National Hockey League would be the highlight of my career, but winning two championships was a pretty sweet feeling, Brookbank says.
Brookbank, 24, started the season in Oklahoma City, spent a week in January in Orlando, then went back to the Blazers before finishing the regular season with Solar Bears after a Feb. 7 recall. But it was Go west, young man again when the Blazers competed for the CHLs Ray Miron Cup. I didnt want to be set down again, but I was more than happy to help the team in the league finals, he recalls. I had played in Oklahoma City the year before and we lost in the semi-finals, so we had unfinished business.
After helping his team defeat the Columbus Cottonmouths, he returned to the Solar Bears to help knock off Grand Rapids and then Chicago on the way to winning the Turner Cup. It seemed a little strange, but it was lots of fun, he says. I got a lot of ice time. Brookbank says beating Grand Rapids was the biggest challenge for the young Solar Bears. We were definitely underdogs by everyone elses standards, he says. But -- not to sound cocky -- we felt confident coming into the series because we had beaten them a couple of times in Van Andel during the regular season. After getting the best of the Griffins in a close series, the Solar Bears devoured the Wolves in five games. I hate to say it, but we rolled over them. Everything came together for us: our scorers scored, our checkers checked and our goalie stopped pucks.
It was unbelievable. It was during the playoffs that word leaked that Orlando was unlikely to join their IHL counterparts in the American Hockey League. The news failed to distract the Solar Bears from their mission. We talked and joked about it, but it wasnt going to change how we were going to play. The two championships put an exclamation point on an amazing season for Brookbank, who was coming back from a dislocated elbow. In the semi-finals the year before, a guy dumped in the puck and I went to straight-arm him and it just popped out. It hurt like crazy. I thought my arm had snapped in two.
Last seasons titles were not the first for Brookbank. He had won a senior hockey league championship in Saskatchewan when he was 18 years old. It was pretty exciting actually, he insists. To be the best team in your province is a big deal. Brookbank enjoyed celebrating with the Turner Cup for a week last summer. We took it to different bars and social events in Orlando, he says. We had a few drinks and ate food out of it. A couple of guys even slept with it in their beds.
He attended the Los Angeles Kings summer camp this year in hopes of landing a tryout with the NHL organization. Instead, the Senators came calling. Without negotiating, they sent a contract to my agent. I was very surprised and very happy, to say the least. While its unlikely that he will win two championships this season, Brookbank wouldnt mind winning one. Itll maybe never happen again, but I hope to give it a shot, he says.
He thinks the Griffins have a fighting chance and hes ready to prove it by dropping the gloves. Its a role I fell into when I started playing juniors, says Brookbank, who was a late-bloomer at 19. I realized I wasnt the most skilled guy and I just wanted to make the team. Obviously, Id rather be a goal scorer, but you gotta play the cards that youre dealt. Being the tough guy is just a role that I fell into, and its followed me around ever since.
His penalty minutes have been on the rise. He tallied 389 penalty minutes in 75 games with Oklahoma City and Orlando last season after registering 354 minutes with the Blazers in 1999-00. He had 337 PIM in 56 games with Anchorage in 1998-99. Goal scorers gotta score and tough guys gotta drop their gloves, Brookbank says. If that means going out and fighting a couple of times a game, it means fighting a couple of times a game.