There were some who questioned whether Brunner could adjust to the smaller ice surface of the National Hockey League -- not to mention the intense physical play that's just not as common in places like the Swiss League, where he became a star offensive force.
Others wondered whether the 26-year old Brunner would be like Swedish forward Fabian Brunnstrom, a former Red Wing who struggled with the same adjustment and never matched his European exploits.
Brunner, who's scored 10 goals and added six assists in 21 games, has used the naysayers as motivation.
"For sure, I want to prove that [I belong]," Brunner said after practice Saturday morning. "There were also a lot of guys back home who thought it was going to be tough … so I came over and wanted to prove to all the guys who criticized me that I could do it. But I [did] it for myself too."
Brunner, an undrafted free-agent signing who also considered the Tampa Bay Lightning, said it took him roughly two weeks to adjust his wide-open offensive game to fit the smaller North American rinks and physical play. Otherwise, the difference in his game now is an eagerness to charge the net and hang around those tough areas looking for scoring opportunities.
"In Switzerland, you don't have to do it too much," Brunner said. "You make plays and you're entering the zone with lots of speed. You have a lot of opportunities on the outside and you can create like that. Here, for me, I'm not a big guy. So if I can't hit anyone, then I've got to prove I can go to those areas where it hurts. So far, I've found it works well to go to the net and take those sticks. It's about paying the price, and I really try to do that. It's paid off so far."
It has also won him respect quickly in the Red Wings locker room -- including that of Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg, who let Brunner stay at his home for a couple of weeks prior to the lockout and eventually wound up playing with him in the Swiss League.
"He knows where to be," Zetterberg said. "I think to be a goal-scorer, you have to find the right areas and he does that. That's what I saw over [in Switzerland] and he keeps doing it over here. We're happy he's doing it."
They're just as pleased with Brunner's work ethic, which falls into line with the Red Wings' overall approach as a team.
"He always wants to learn, and that's the thing that sets him apart from other guys," Detroit alternate captain Niklas Kronwall said. "He's a sniper, but also a hard-working guy. He wants to get better every day, and he's listening. He's been a great find for us and fits right in. Great guy off the ice and works hard on the ice. Obviously, [we're] very happy to have him."
That work ethic stems from Brunner's personal goal of avoiding inconsistency at all costs. Despite the great start, which would make him a serious Calder Trophy candidate if his advanced age didn't make him ineligible for the award, Brunner said it's still too early -- at least in his own mind -- to declare him a proven NHL player.
"I haven't played a [full] season yet," he said. "It's about showing it every game. That was a big point for me in Switzerland when I started four years ago. I wanted to prove to myself that I can bring it every night and try to be consistent every night. That's what I want to prove here too."
Brunner's biggest fear as a player?
"I don't want to show up one night and have people say, ‘Yeah, he's a good hockey player … but what happened the last five games?'" Brunner said. "It's a big thing for me to show up every night and prove that I can do that."
Defensively, he's still got a ways to go. He's still trying to adjust to the fast stops and starts of the NHL game and learning all the defensive coverage assignments installed by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who was convinced Brunner could play in the NHL while watching him play for Switzerland in last year's world championships.
Thus far, Babcock likes what he's seen of the late-blooming forward, who's a good skater and a much-needed right-hand shot in Detroit's top six.
"I think he fits in," Babcock said. "He's not scared. We would have known that by now. He's trying to get better each day, and I think he is getting better. I think he's a high-end player who makes good decisions most times. We've just got to continue to work with him and allow him to grow."
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