With grit, hard work and determination, Brandon Manning has placed his name on the list of athletes who can say they scratched and clawed their way to the big leagues. Nothing has ever been handed to him.
"I think that's something I take pride in, probably every day," he said.
Manning, who signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on the opening day of free agency, saw his NHL dreams take flight with the Philadelphia Flyers. But a few years before that, he was with the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League.
Despite some decent numbers from the blueline and an obvious physical edge, Manning was passed over and went undrafted - a setback, perhaps, but not the end of the road.
He earned the right to wear the "C" in Chilliwack and in his first season as captain he scored 13 goals and added 41 assists for 54 points in 69 games.
Manning would eventually be signed by the Flyers in November of 2010, in the midst of an even better fourth WHL season. He'd finish 2010-11 with 21 goals and 32 assists in 53 games. Over the course of three full seasons with the Bruins, Manning compiled a whopping 407 penalty minutes.
Regardless of earning his first pro contract, Manning still had to show he could skate with the big boys. That meant dropping the gloves when necessary, toiling away in the minors and doing whatever it took to keep young defensive prospects and veterans alike from taking his spot away once he got it.
"(I take pride in) not just where I came from but how I came up and grew my game and changed it a little bit and having to fight for what I got between the minors and a few games in Philly and I had to chip away." said Manning. "Even the last few years Philly had eight or nine d-men and prospects coming up. It's probably no different than Chicago. I've always had to prove myself. It's something I'm really proud of, where I've had to come up and changed my game and battled for it."
That kind of career path and perspective keeps a fire lit under Manning.
"I think it makes me value the little things that much more and appreciate every day. Something like that makes me realize how special a city like Chicago is and how great Philly was with sports fans and their love of the game. It's definitely something I'm proud of."
Video: Brandon Manning on decision to sign with CHI
Flash forward to this summer and Manning is now a Blackhawk. This came after a brief negotiation period with other teams. It was the pitch the Blackhawks brass made that sold the blueliner on the team and the city.
"I think early on when (free agency) opened up we had a conversation with Nashville," Manning said. "I had a pretty good relationship with (Peter) Laviolette and Kevin McCarthy there who were my first couple of coaches in Philadelphia. Chicago reached out right at the end of the week and I had a conversation with Mr. (Joel) Quenneville and (Stan) Bowman over the last couple of days, which probably put me over the top in thinking about Chicago and the opportunity there with just how great of an organization it is."
Manning called the value Chicago placed on his physical, defense-first style of play a "huge factor" in his decision.
"I can be more of a stay-at-home d-man and chip in offensively but also I play that physical game I think they're kind of looking for," he said. "When you look at the depth and stuff, you obviously look at other guys and what kind of shot (you have) but I think it really came down to my conversation with those guys and convincing me I'd have a good opportunity and be part of a good group and a good team."
For the Blackhawks, this signing adds some more variety to their mix.
"Brandon has a bit of a different style than all of our defensemen, really," said Blackhawks Senior VP/General Manager Stan Bowman. "He's got some physicality to his game and is just coming into his own."
In addition to the different style of play, the Blackhawks are hoping Manning's best hockey is ahead of him.
Manning recorded a career high seven goals and 12 assists in 65 games last season in Philadelphia.
"He's 28 years-old, but his last season was his best year. I guess you could call him a little bit of a late bloomer," said Bowman. "He didn't make the NHL until he was in his mid-twenties but he's really playing some good hockey. He did have seven goals last year, I wouldn't call him an offensive defenseman but he would have been right at the top of our defensive list. I think he can shoot the puck, but first and foremost he takes pride in playing defensive and simple hockey. He has a little bit of an edge to his game, he's a competitive guy and I think those are all attributes are going to add something different to the mix we have."
One thing is for certain, Manning will keep grinding - this time in a Blackhawks uniform.