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THE RENAISSANCE MAN

By Ryan Dittrick - CalgaryFlames.com

Confidence is king.

Have it, and the rink is your playground.

Lose it, and the riveting, everyday mission is more like a chore, than passion.

That's where TJ Brodie was a year ago, battling the "mental grind."

Now?

He's playing the best hockey of his career.

"When he's at the top of his game," says skipper Mark Giordano, Brodie's longtime D partner, "he's moving his feet and moving the puck like he is now.

"He's one of the best in the game at deception and getting away from that forecheck.

"You see it out there, up and down the ice, moving pucks and making plays."

And even, if the opportunity arises, take over a game.

Giordano says that Brodie is one of the NHL's premier skaters, pointing to his world-class edge-work as the reason for his quickness and "escapability."

In his mind, it's the very reason for his ability to play the right side - a rarity, these days - with the kind of success he does.

Whether he's on the breakout, shielding his body from hard-charging opponents, fluently swinging the puck off the yellow kick-plate at the right point and pulling it to the middle, or finding the open man with an illusory, backhand dish, the 6-foot-1, 185-lb. rearguard is a rare breed in the modern game.

A chic blend of impeccable defensive acumen and grace under fire.

All things the captain - a 13-year vet - knows a thing or two about.

 

"I've watched him for a long time," Giordano said. "It's an art, to be honest, to be able to spin and get away from forecheckers like that.

"He's got one of the best backhand passes in the league.

"He's the whole package for us, and with the way he's playing right now, it's great to see. It all stems from hard work. He's been a huge asset for our team this year."

Last year, Brodie put up another solid campaign offensively, recording 30-plus points for the fifth straight year.

But with the Flames missing out on the spring dance, and other facets of his game that he deemed a "struggle," the blueliner looked beyond the numbers to break down where he needed to make strides this fall.

"I definitely wasn't happy with the way last year went," he said. "My focus and my goal this year was to come in and play the way I did a couple years ago.

"The biggest thing is not getting too down. I think I was guilty of that, at times, last year and my game suffered.

"You're going to make mistakes out there and bad things are going to happen, but the faster you move on and forget about it, the better it is."

But even the most even-keeled players - Brodie included - admit that's easier said than done.

The 'everyday league' that is the NHL has high demands: long, wearisome travel days, back-to-back games and time without the comfort of family, friends and home-cooked meals.

As 82 games accrue, there's little time for reflection amid the weight of expectation.

You're 'on,' eight months of the year.

"It can definitely be tough," agrees fellow defenceman Travis Hamonic. "Everybody goes through stretches where they struggle with confidence.

"That's part of being a pro.

"I've been through it myself numerous times in the past.

"But the way he's responded, the work he put in over the summer and continues to do each and every day during practice, it says a heckuva lot about him and what he means to this team.

"He's a rock for us."

 

The key, Brodie says, was to properly reset, fall back on his years of experience and know-how, and to remind himself to relax and have fun again. 'His game,' after all, is predicated on poise and precision puck moving, with a polish branded by subtlety.

It's an extension of the cerebral D man's off-ice temperament. Humble, reserved, not overly vocal. But it's clear a fire burns deep inside him, and there was no way he wouldn't bounce back and give his team the kind of quality minutes he's chewing up now.

"He's fairly quiet and composed around us (the coaches), too, but I do hear from the talk around the room that he's not that way in the room and on the ice," assistant coach Ryan Huska said.

"He's a thinker. That's one thing with him. He may not articulate a lot of what he sees or feels at times, but trust me, he feels it. Whether it's a win or a loss, a tough shift or a good or bad season, he's eager to do his part.

"And winning is everything.

"He'll do everything to make that happen."

At both ends.

And with authority.

We all saw it in plain view last Wednesday when Brodie's own giddy-up spurred the Flames to a 3-2 lead late in their contest against the Dallas Stars. There he was, pinching deep in the far corner, spinning off a check, maintaining control and whipping a pass through a seam and onto the tape of the captain, who picked the glove-side corner.

All after Brodie's great work along the wall kept the entire play alive a good half-minute prior.

He was, as the old saying goes, all over the ice.

"He has the ability to do that," Huska said. "When you get to his level, he has a good understanding of what he needs to do to be successful. For us, as coaches, we try to build our players up and make them as confident as possible out on the ice. Sure, we like to break down the video and highlight mistakes, but it's all in an effort to make them better. Constructive criticism is key in this game, but so is positive reinforcement. We want our players to know we have their back, so they can feel the autonomy to go out there and make plays without worrying about the consequences.

"It's better to focus on the reward.

"But in terms of getting his confidence back, that's all him. That's him coming to the rink every day and enjoying himself. When the game becomes fun again, you really see guys break out of their shell and do what they're best at - what got them here, and what gave them success in the
past.

"TJ's been in this league now for eight years. He's had his highs, and he's had his lows. And I'm a big believer in how these experiences can make you a better player in the long run.

"The way he's playing right now is evidence of that."

 

Brodie entered Sunday's tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks with league-best +18 rating - an impressive achievement the veteran has approached, but never come into contact with, let alone this early in the campaign.

He doesn't pay any mind to that data - scoffing at the idea of using hockey's archaic stat-assembly to measure good vs. bad - but even he did a double take when reminded of how far in the black he's gone in such a short period of time.

It is, after all, a possible sign that he's elevated his game to the pantheon of the game's elite.

Accurate, considering what Brodie brings is more than goals, points and a gaudy plus/minus.

That, along with having some of the best wheels in the game, is what truly separates him from the rest.

"He skates himself out of trouble," Huska said. "Instead of hoping to move the puck through a bunch of sticks, he gets his feet moving to create separation, to create an open lane, and suddenly those contested breakout passes are clean, direct.

"That's how today's game is played. It used to be about guys that were elite backward skaters, but that's not so much the case anymore. Defencemen are some of the fastest guys on the ice now and they can cover a lot of ground, so instead of backtracking and giving up some open ice, guys are gapping up real tight, using their forward speed to break off the angles and funnel their opponents to certain areas of the ice, or along the boards.

"So when Gio says it's an art, he's bang on. You can teach the mechanics of this stuff with players, but in order to execute to the elite level that TJ is right now, you have to be blessed with great foot speed and the work ethic to improve and make that a priority in your game.

"Good stick, good angle - he doesn't give his opponents any time or daylight to make a play."

Coming into the weekend, Brodie has played more minutes than any other Flames defenceman at even strength, and has been on the ice for the fewest number of goals against with 10.

And with four points (2G, 3A) in his last five games, he clearly has the hustle to be a difference-maker, long-term. (will need to update)

"This is the best I've ever seen him play, both in my short time here and through all the video I've seen," Huska said. When you see him feeling good about his game, he's really moving his feet and he's heavily involved in the play. That allows him to be a little more creative offensively, but also very hard to play against because his stick is so good and he's closes so quick.

"He's feeling really good about himself right now, and he should.

"Most of all, he's letting his play do the talking."

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