|The Blue Jackets sent Gilbert Brule to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch on January 1st.
Syracuse was in the midst of a virtual winter hiatus in AHL terms, with six days between games. This would just not do for the antsy Brule.
“It (stinks) this week,’’ Brule said. “We only have one game this week. Six days between games. There’re a lot of workouts, a lot of practice. I don’t have much to do in a hotel. I don’t have a car.’’
It was a tough situation for a potential franchise cornerstone that the Columbus Blue Jackets are hoping goes places in a hurry. Like, say, back to the NHL.
That’s where Columbus insists Brule, 21, is headed. The question of timing is up to him.
Brule, the No. 6 overall pick by Columbus in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, is caught in the middle of organizational philosophies old and new. He was shuttled up to the NHL as an 18-year-old at the start of the 2005-06 season, a beacon of hope for a struggling franchise.
But in 116 NHL games since, he’s managed just 12 goals and 15 assists, and this season he dropped down to fourth-line time. New GM Scott Howson took over this season, with the platform that playing time would be earned by results, not draft position. So he sent Brule to the Crunch two weeks ago, with the promise/warning that Brule would come back when his play merited.
A typical hotshot with more than a season’s worth of NHL games in his duffel bag might have squawked. Brule’s reaction was nothing short of refreshing. In retrospect, he said, perhaps the Crunch was the team he should have started with all along.
“My first year was tough. I didn’t play a lot,’’ Brule said. “Coming here would have been better. I would have gotten to play a little bit.’’
Age-wise, Brule became an adult on the exact same day that he was forced to realize that pro hockey is a grown-up’s business. He turned 21 on Jan. 1, the same day he was demoted to Syracuse. Happy birthday! Blow out the candles and don’t forget to make a wish while you’re at it.
“I was flying here the whole day. I spent the rest of my time in a hotel. That was my birthday,’’ Brule said. “Usually on my birthday I’m playing hockey or traveling. So I get used to it.’’
Brule doesn’t get excited about much or say a whole lot, and one reason for his level-headedness can be found on his left wrist. That’s where he has a tattoo of the name “Leah’’ and the years 1984-1996.
Leah was his older sister, and that was her lifespan. She died at age 12 of cerebral palsy. Gilbert was 9 at the time, a tender age, but still old enough to carry some burning memories.
“It was her smile,’’ he said when asked what he remembers most about her. “She couldn’t talk, or anything. Whenever we walked into the room, she was always smiling, even though she couldn’t talk because of the pain.’’
You live through something like that, and muddling past mundane ailments is as easy as shooting into an empty net. Like the fractured sternum and broken leg Brule suffered as a rookie in 2005-06, limiting him to seven games with Columbus, when he totaled two goals and two assists. Brule was returned to Vancouver of the WHL that season, where he tore it up to the tune of 23 goals and 15 assists in 27 games.
Turns out, that may have been the last time Brule, a bull of a player at 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds, played with the type of bravado that makes him a budding star. In 31 games with Columbus this season, he contributed just one goal and three assists.
“When he gets out there, he probably feels he has to prove to the world (how good he is). He’s always been an important player wherever he’s been,’’ said Chris MacFarland, assistant to Howson. “For the first time in his career, he’s had to deal with not being a key, key cog right away.’’
Somewhere in the winter wonderland of Syracuse, the Blue Jackets need Brule to dig around a snow bank or two to find the confidence that will make him that sort of integral player again.
“It’s a mindset. For a lot of these kids, they worry about making mistakes,’’ said Tyler Wright, development coach for Columbus, who has been working with Brule. “For a young guy that’s a skilled guy, confidence is a big thing. When Gilbert is playing his best, he’s playing gritty, a hard player to play against.’’
Brule’s play in his first four games with the Crunch encapsulated why he’s down with the team, searching for consistency. In games one, three and four, all Syracuse losses, he was OK at best, nothing special. But in his second contest, a win over Albany on Jan. 4, he pierced the River Rats for three goals. His shot, great even by NHL standards, is like a cannon going off in a library at the AHL level.
“I think I’m getting better. I’m getting my offensive game,’’ Brule said. “It’s nice to get to play however many minutes. It’s better than playing five minutes a game. Every game, I want to play my best. If I’m not, I’m hard on myself.’’
Brule is looking at a long stretch of such moments of truth, which is exactly what should make him and the Blue Jackets happy. From Jan. 16-26, the Crunch plays seven games.
If that short stretch winds up propelling Brule back to the big time for good, the best-case scenario will have been played out. If not, Brule can continue to look for his game in the type of pro setting he probably should have found himself in to start with.
“The guys (here) are more together. Everyone’s around the same age,’’ Brule said. “Hanging out after practice, going to the mall, going to practice. There’s a bunch of guys who are young here. I go over to their house, they invite me out to dinner. I’m enjoying my time here. I can’t be dwelling on anything (negative) when I’m here.’’