|Jeff Brown and Martin Jones (photo: C. Spatz)|
For every Tyler Toffoli at the Kings recent Development camp you had a Rob Mignardi. For every Jake Muzzin there was an Alex Roach. And for every Martin Jones there was some European goalie who had everybody asking ‘How do you spell his name?’
The point being – camp rosters weren’t only filled with high end prospects and top draft choices. There were also more than a dozen invitees, aka ‘the other guys.’
After the bigger names went home on Wednesday that week, camp continued for a few more days. This is the story of one of those guys, Jeff Brown of the Ontario Hockey League.
Prior to camp I spoke with his General Manager, (former Kings tough guy) Warren Rychel of the Windsor Spitfires, who described him as “tenacious up and down, two-way winger, in your face type player.”
Naturally, I wanted to know if that was a fair assessment. “Yes, especially come playoff time,” Brown proclaimed. “You need guys like that on your team. You need the skill guys, but you also need the second/third line grinder guys who are going to where down the other team’s top players. I was playing top minutes in the playoffs against the other team’s top line. So, it’s one of the unsung roles. But, if you do it, the team wins. I’d say it’s something I grew into later in my career and it’s something that will stick with me from this point forward.”
One of the specific players he had the task of shadowing earlier in the season was Toffoli, the reigning OHL Scoring Champion and a second round Kings draft pick in 2010.
“He’s always a great player,” Brown started out by saying. “Me, Kenny Ryan and Stephen Johnson had the task of shutting his line down when they came to Windsor. We worked hard in that game and were lucky enough to keep him from scoring. So, whenever you can keep him off the board, a 50-goal scorer, it’s always a good accomplishment and the coaches gave us a pat on the back. He’s an amazing player and has a great shot for a little guy, for sure.”
Wait? ‘Little guy’ – they’re both listed at 6-foot-1?
“I think I might have a couple pounds on him though,” quipped Brown.
He had some praise for a few other Kings prospects as well, including Robbie Czarnik of the Plymouth Whalers – “He’s another guy I had to play against and it’s never fun when you’re going up against Czarnik because he’s a fast guy. You know you’re in for a workout when you’re playing up against him. He has a quick release too.”
Development Camp was more like two overlapping camps. The Kings prospects and draft picks came in first. They spent two days doing drills and then the invitees showed up for scrimmages on Monday and Tuesday. After that, the first group went home and Brown’s group stayed for a few more days of on and off-ice drills, primarily with Kings coaches Nelson Emerson, Mike O’Connell and strength and conditioning expert Tim Adams.
“It was a lot more about development. They were setting the tone for how they expect you to play within that organization – puck protection, shooting and things like that,” explained Brown. “The first few days were hard and grueling. It was good to take a step back (after that), to work on skills. We went to the beach and were doing little workouts there too. It’s hard stuff, but it’s worth it and everybody was trying extra hard to show their work ethic and get noticed.”
Over the past few summers, some guys have tried to get noticed by increasing the physical play, even dropping the gloves in camp. This year, things were rather tame by comparison. Given what Rychel said about him earlier, was he holding back at all?
“I just finished my checks and tried to be physical and strong on the puck. They said that’s what they wanted to see. There’s the side of my game where I can be skilled and I was making some good passes. Luckily, I was on a line with Andy (Andreoff) and Mignardi too, I played against him in the playoffs. So, I was pretty comfortable and familiar with my linemates.”
Part of that comfort factor with Andreoff came from the fact they were roommates and linemates in Oshawa, prior to his being traded to Windsor in January.
“We’re really good buddies and have kept in contact since the trade,” said Brown. “He’s a great guy. He’s a tough, two-way centerman. He has pretty soft hands, yet he can drop the gloves and handle himself pretty well too. He’s an all-around player.”
And that’s good news for the Kings, who drafted Andreoff in the third round of last month’s NHL Entry Draft.
How about the overall camp experience, was it what he expected?
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect, with this being my first NHL camp,” Brown admitted. “It was one of those things where they worked you really hard, but at the same time, it’s an experience where you need to grow as a hockey player. It’s a stepping stone for me. Coming out of my over-ager year in juniors, it’s good to get a tryout anywhere. It was an amazing experience.”
The highlight had to be the goal he scored in the first scrimmage on Monday. Although, he had some nerves going into the game.
“I thought the nerves would be a little worse though,” Brown proclaimed. “It was nice that we had the practice before (earlier that morning). So, we got the hands and legs warmed up from the flight the day before. I felt pretty good out there overall. As soon as the puck dropped all the nerves went away and everybody was just playing hard. It was fun to get back in the swing of things. Being summer, you don’t normally get that calibre of hockey.”
Sure, it wasn’t the game winner of the Stanley Cup Finals. So, without over-dramatizing it, scoring such a beautiful goal early on in camp still had to help his confidence, right?
“It kinda showed me ‘I can play at this level. I can play at the pro level.’ I always knew I could be a pro hockey player. But, it’s one of those things where you never know if you’re going to get the chance,’ said Brown.
“So, I was really happy I capitalized on the chance. It was a great shot from Mignardi and I was able to showcase my shot a little bit. Stuff like that is huge for a free agent like me because you’re doing what you can to get noticed. The best way to do that is get yourself on the score sheet.”
Away from the rink, Brown enjoyed his time with the guys and appreciated the opportunity to get to know several players he had played against in the past, but didn’t really know as people. He especially enjoyed the night they all went to Venice Beach for some fish tacos. It gave a small opportunity to experience life in LA, a place he had never been before.
Yet, it wasn’t all good. There was this little drama…
“We had a two-hour break in the middle of the day on Thursday,” Brown began. “I went back to the hotel and most of the guys were pretty tired, so I took a little afternoon nap. We had to be back to the rink by 1:30. I set my alarm for 1:00 and hit the sheets. I must have set the clock for 1:00 AM because 1:15 PM rolls around I look at the clock and thought, ‘oh no.’ I had so put my clothes back on and sprint back to the rink, going full clip on the side of the road. It’s something I can laugh about now, but at the time…you never want to be the guy who’s sleeping in and late. I’m just glad I made it back.”
Now that it’s all over. Where does he go from here?
“They left it a little open-ended about what’s next. They said they were really happy with my performance in camp and I surprised a lot of people,” said Brown. “So, that’s all you can ask for going into camp as a free agent. They also said keep working on the things they were preaching to us all week. Hopefully, I can get on that Rookie Camp roster. If not, I can’t get discouraged. The thing about hockey is sometimes you get better with age. So, I’m hoping to continue on and hopefully have a pro career in the future.”
Could that future possibly include the ECHL if he isn’t offered an AHL deal? After all, Ontario Reign coach Karl Taylor seemed to be paying special attention to him at camp.
“He used to coach the Waterloo Wolves (CIS). He knows that if the AHL doesn’t work out of me, I’m supposed to go to the University of Western Ontario. He’s good friends with the coach there. He was saying he was happy with my play and likes the type of guy I am. He’s a really good guy. So, once I get my schooling done, I wouldn’t mind checking out the East Coast League and building my way up that way.”
So, who knows. Maybe he’ll be back in Los Angeles at some point for some more of those fish tacos.
And some hockey too, of course.