Portland Pirates rookie Chris Brown summarized his team's attitude toward the postseason in succinct fashion:
"You can call us underdogs, you can call us anything you want, but we're ready for the challenge," said the 22-year-old draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes.
As the American Hockey League's 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs begin this weekend, Brown and his Pirates will face the Syracuse Crunch -- a squad made up of several players who won the Calder Cup last year in Norfolk, before an offseason affiliation change moved Tampa Bay's prospects to New York state.
"We're looking forward to it," Brown said. "We might as well play the best team in the league first and get it out of the way."
It's that fearlessness that brought Brown to hockey in the first place.
Growing up in Texas, Brown was on skates before his third birthday, thanks in part to his parents' love of the sport and also his own overflowing energy. Though he dabbled in other sports with his classmates, hockey won out in the end.
"I was a hyper kid and hockey was the only thing that would calm me down," he said. "It was the only sport that they could sign me up for at that young of an age. My dad grew up playing hockey and I just loved the game and stuck with it in Texas."
Brown went on to be selected by the Coyotes in the second round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and spend three years on the front lines of the University of Michigan Wolverines. But he passed up his senior season for the chance to turn pro.
"It was a tough decision, but I knew I was ready to leave school after my junior year," Brown said. "Looking back on it now, it was definitely the right move for me."
In his first pro season, the 22-year-old Brown led all AHL rookies with 29 goals in his 68 games for Portland. He also contributed 18 assists and 98 penalty minutes. And he made his National Hockey League debut with Phoenix on March 4 against the Anaheim Ducks.
"I was just honored and blessed to get the opportunity to do that. It's something that a kid from Texas doesn't usually get to do."
As expected, there was some adjustment to the pro game.
"These guys are professionals. This is a job," Brown said. "I wouldn't necessarily say that the style of the game is different, but the seasons are longer and it's more taxing on your body. But this is a job now and we need to win and we need to do it now. You need to be at your best every night."
The pressure to win will only intensify from here on out, as head coach Ray Edwards' Pirates open their first-round series Saturday in Syracuse.
"Being in the AHL has helped me a lot in the fact that I'm learning to be a pro and I'm learning every day from the coaches and other players what that takes and entails," Brown said. "I've had some success, but the credit has to go to everyone I've played with and the opportunities that I've been given through the coaches."
With the backing of his teammates and coaching staff, Brown looks forward to an extended career in hockey, long after this year's playoff run ends. As a kid from Texas, the unlikely pro can't wait to give back.
"I want to play the game as long as I can, and even when I'm done I want to be able to teach," he said. "I want to let kids, especially back home in Texas, have the same experience that I had.
"I want them to have the chance to live out the same dream that I get to."
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