The job of a hockey enforcer is one of the toughest and most misunderstood in all of sports. The most respected tough guys around the league rarely drop the gloves just for the sake of fighting.
Enforcers who achieve longevity fight to give their team a spark of emotion when things aren't going well on the ice. They step in to protect or avenge a teammate who has been hit while in a vulnerable position. They battle in proxy of more skilled players whom the team can't sacrifice to a major penalty. They also have to know when it's wiser not to retaliate, and keep their focus on the hockey game at hand.
While reviled by hockey's critics, enforcers are often among the players most highly respected by the game's stars. The skill players on a hockey team skate with a little more confidence when the club has a top-flight policeman protecting them. The team as a whole plays with heightened unity and energy, especially in hostile road arenas.
Few policemen in Flyers – or NHL – history understood and executed their role better than Dave Brown during his two stints in orange and black. Brown took the safety of his teammates seriously on the ice, putting himself in harm's way if necessary. He went toe-to-toe with many of the NHL's top fighters of the 1980s and 1990s, including Bob Probert, Gino Odjick, Chris Nilan, Marty McSorley, Rob Ray, Randy McKay, Jay Miller and Stu Grimson, earning immense respect from his peers. But he could also make so-called "non-fighters" accountable if they hit one of his team's stars with a cheap shot.
"Brownie was a big part of our success, along with guys like [Glen Cochrane] and Craig Berube," said Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe. "Knowing that a guy like Brownie was watching your back gave the other players peace of mind to make plays happen in traffic and the boards. With Dave, the other part of it was that he worked extremely hard at practice and on the ice."
The 6'5'' Brown was best known for the explosive left-handed bombs that could drop even the toughest opponent. He also had the ability to take a punch or two early and come back to win a lengthier fight. Brown lost few fights decisively in his 729 NHL games. Just as importantly, however, the big right winger made himself over time into a player who could skate a regular shift and then step into the enforcer role as necessary.
"I wanted to help the team win any I way I could, and if you're going to do that, you can't only just fight," Brown said. "The fighting part was something I was good at, but it was more important to win games. That's why you play."Role Defined Early
David James Brown was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on October 12, 1962. It didn't take him long to realize two things – he loved playing hockey, but he lacked the skating ability and puck skills to keep pace with the star players he played with and against in the Hub City.
A big, rawboned youngster, Brown took on the enforcer role early in his junior hockey career with the Tier II Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where his teammates included future NHL enforcer Joey Kocur and his opponents included the likes of tough guys Jim Archibald, as well as Chris Chelios and later Flyers teammate Ron Hextall.
In 1980-81, Brown advanced to major junior hockey with the Spokane Flyers. The following year, he transferred to his hometown Saskatoon Blades, racking up 344 penalty minutes in 62 games in addition to his 11 goals and 44 points. After the season, the Flyers drafted him in the seventh round (140th overall) in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft.
The 20-year-old Brown earned a spot on the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners, at the start of the 1982-83 season. Recognizing that his fists would be his ticket to staying in the lineup, the rookie shattered the AHL single-season penalty minute record, compiling 418 minutes in the penalty box in 71 games. He scored eight goals and added six helpers for the season.
"In some ways, the American League is rougher because everyone wants to prove themselves at that level. You had to ready to answer the bell for your team every shift. You knew if a guy got beat, he'd want to go again as soon as possible," Brown recalled in 2003 when he was working as a New York Rangers pro scout.
The organization rewarded Brown with a two-game recall to the big club in March 1983. Flyers coach Bob McCammon didn't have to explain to Brown why he'd been called up. Making his NHL debut at the Boston Gardens on March 12, the big winger set out to make an immediate impression.
With Boston leading 2-0 at the 15:19 mark of the first period, Brown dropped the gloves with big Boston defenseman Gord Kluzak and proceeded to pummel the first overall pick from the 1982 draft. Finally, a thundering left from Brown ko'd Kluzak, who ended up in the hospital to undergo x-rays on the orbital bone around his right eye. Fortunately, the Bruins player was okay.
Brown finished the season with the Mariners, who earned a trip to the Calder Cup Finals before getting swept by Rochester. Although he failed to register a point in 16 playoff games, Brown made his presence felt with numerous big bodychecks and fisticuffs. He had 107 penalty minutes, running his combined totals for the season to a staggering 524 in 89 games with the Mariners and Flyers.Full-Time Flyer
In his second season, Brown started the season in the AHL. He found fewer players who were anxious to drop the gloves with him and a little more skating room for himself and his teammates. In 59 games, he increased his goal production to 17 goals and 31 points while his penalty minutes decreased to a more reasonable 150 minutes. Brown spent less time in the locker room for misconduct penalties, yet was still ready to answer the call whenever he was really needed.
It wasn't just the intimidation factor that enabled Brown to see more ice time. His work ethic at practice enabled him to get better as a player and earned praise from his coaches.
"I never coached a player who wanted to improve more than Dave Brown. Dave was always the first one on for practice, and the last one off," his former Maine Mariners coach Tom McVie recounted in The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers
When the Flyers traded Paul Holmgren to the Minnesota North Stars in February 1984, a roster spot opened for Brown. He made good on the opportunity and never returned to the minors again.
On February 25, 1984, the Flyers found themselves trailing the Hartford Whalers 4-1 late in first period. Enter Dave Brown. The rookie crashed the net and collected his first NHL goal at the 15:22 mark to trigger a three-goal outburst in a three-minute span. But the Whalers scored yet again on struggling sophomore goaltender Pelle Lindbergh in the closing seconds of the period to give Hartford a 5-4 lead at the intermission.
Flyers coach Bob McCammon sent Brown out to start the second period in order to provide a quick jolt of energy to the team. Just 15 seconds later, Brown and fellow tough guy Torrie Robertson dropped the gloves, with Brown getting the better of his smaller opponent. Shortly thereafter, defenseman Glen Cochrane jumped all over Sylvain Turgeon, sending the emotions to a fever pitch.
Darryl Sittler quickly re-tied the game for the Flyers only to see Tony Currie regain the lead for Hartford barely a minute later. But Mark Howe quickly answered back with his second tally of the tilt to equalize the score yet again. On the next shift, Brown rocked defenseman Joel Quenneville with a big bodycheck. The momentum was on the Flyers side until Hartford superstar Ron Francis seized control of the tilt and spearheaded what ultimately turned in a 9-7 win for the Whalers.
Despite the loss, McCammon was quick to praise Brown's efforts while lambasting the club's defensive lapses. The next night, Brown was rewarded with sporadic shifts on Bobby Clarke's right wing in an important game at the Spectrum against the archrival New York Islanders, whom the Flyers were battling for first place in the Patrick Division.
The see-saw game was tied 3-3 in the third period when the Islanders' Duane Sutter scored at the 5:56 mark. McCammon sent Brown out with Clarke on the next shift. The Flyers captain got under the skin of volatile New York goaltender Billy Smith, who came up with the stick. Bedlam ensued. In the process, Brown pummeled defenseman Paul Boutilier and challenged Smith. Brown, Clarke, Boutilier and Smith all earned fighting majors and the Flyers got a power play as Smith was hit with an extra penalty for high sticking.
On the ensuing man advantage, Mark Howe scored to restore the lead. Smith disgustedly fired the puck out of his net. Late in the period, the Flyers Len Hachborn added an insurance goal to seal a 5-3 win.
A few weeks later, on March 15, the Boston Bruins came to Philly. As expected whenever these clubs met, tensions escalated quickly. Barry Pederson scored two goals in the first 2:41 of the game, one shorthanded, to give the Beantowners a 2-0 lead before the Flyers knew what hit them. In the meantime, Boston blueliner Gord Kluzak was eager to seek out Brown to avenge the ugly beating he received in Brown's first NHL game.
Flyers defenseman Thomas Eriksson scored at the 4:09 mark of the first period to cut the deficit to 2-1. But the goal celebration was curtailed quickly as Brown and Kluzak engaged in fisticuffs, with Brown once again gaining the upper hand.
The rest of the game saw a parade of Flyers goals and brawls. Two goals by Dave Poulin and one each by Rich Sutter, Glen Cochrane and Tim Kerr overwhelmed the Bruins, while Cochrane and Terry O'Reilly had a pair of toe-to-toe slugfests and the Flyers' Daryl Stanley went at it with John Blum.
In the middle period, a series of stickwork exchanges between the Bruins (Mike Milbury, O'Reilly and Randy Hillier) and Flyers (Brian Propp, Cochrane and Ron Sutter) created an emotional powder keg. The inevitable happened when Brown dropped the gloves with big Brian Curran.
Finally, with the Flyers comfortably ahead 6-3 late in regulation, Brown and Curran squared off again, as did Cochrane and O'Reilly. All four players received fighting majors and game misconducts.
Unlike the Boston tilt, the outcome was never in doubt one week later when the Flyers walloped the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 13-4 score on Spectrum ice. With the Flyers up 2-0 early, Brown took on Pittsburgh enforcer Marty McSorley in an epic clash. (Later in the game, McSorley also fought Flyers defenseman Daryl Stanley). In addition to his fight, Brown got a rare entry on the scoring sheet, assisting on an Ilkka Sinisalo goal.
Brown's play over the final 19 games of the season impressed McCammon enough to earn starting assignments in the first two games of the playoffs against the Washington Capitals. The Flyers went down in three straight games. Brown, who played sparingly in the first two games, sat out the finale.
McCammon was fired after the playoff debacle and replaced by Mike Keenan. Despite the anti-climactic finish to the season, Brown was rapidly gaining the reputation as one of the top young heavyweights in the NHL. But with a new coaching regime coming in, Brown understood he couldn't take his roster spot for granted. Players in his role seldom can.The Bruise Brothers
Skating was the biggest weakness in Brown's game. At times, he had trouble keeping up with the breakneck pace of the NHL game. Brown devoted the entire summer of 1984 to improving his technique under the power-skating tutelage of Ted Sator.
The hard work paid off, as Brown learned to use leg drive and economy of motion to compensate for his lack of natural speed. While he'd never be mistaken for Mark Howe or Mike Gartner on his skates, Brown was able to keep with the play. Over time, these lessons helped him gain more ice time in non-fighting situations.
It took awhile for Brown to earn Keenan's trust. He was scratched in seven of the Flyers' first 12 games in the 1984-85 season. The coach was upset with Brown for taking a costly double-roughing minor (in addition to a pair of fights with Jim Kyte) and an ill-timed turnover that led to a goal against in a sloppy 7-4 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets at the Spectrum.
Brown put in overtime at practice and finally got back into the lineup in mid-November. Chomping at the bit to maintain his spot, Brown was a body checking machine in a 6-0 home win over the Hartford Whalers and followed it up by toppling several Edmonton Oilers in a 7-5 win two nights later. Even better, they were all clean hits and Brown stayed out of the box in both games. All Brown needed to do was dip his big shoulder and his opponent usually took a seat on the ice.
One week later, the Spectrum erupted in cheers when Brown scored his second NHL goal to put the Flyers ahead 3-2 in the third period of a home tilt with the Islanders. The clubs settled for a 3-3 tie. Several weeks later, Brown victimized the Islanders again with a goal.
"I didn't score many goals, so every one was special. The guys had fun with it and you remember [each one] because they have to last you for awhile," Brown recalled after his playing days.
On December 1, 1984, Brown thumped the Penguins' Rod Buskas in a fight with the game scoreless. In the second period, he assisted on the night's first goal. The Flyers never looked back and prevailed 3-1. Shortly thereafter, Brown slugged it out with Montreal's Chris "Knuckles" Nilan.
By now, Brown solidified his place in Keenan's starting lineup. Along with rookie right wing Rick Tocchet and defenseman Ed Hospodar, Brown made sure opposing players took no liberties with players such as Brian Propp, Ilkka Sinisalo, Dave Poulin or Mark Howe.
"If there's a problem on the ice, I go out and fix the problem," said Brown in a televised interview early in his career. "That's how I can help the hockey team."
Brown sustained a badly bruised hand when his left fist connected flush with Dwight Schofield's helmet in a fight during a 6-3 road loss to the St. Louis Blues. Nevertheless, Brownie stayed in the lineup and was back punching a few nights later when he took on thickly built Garth Butcher in a 5-3 home win over Vancouver.
"There are nights when you aren't feeling good, but you've still got a job to do. Everyone has to play through [pain] sometimes," Brown explained.
The pain was too great to play on when Brown separated his shoulder on March 2, during a 4-2 loss in Quebec. The injury sidelined him for 16 of the remaining 18 games in the season. He returned in time to finish the regular-season for the first-place Flyers, testing out the injury successfully in a final game fight with former Flyers captain Mel Bridgman in a 6-1 Philadelphia win over the Devils.
Brown started 11 playoff games, mostly during the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds as the Flyers broke their first-round playoff hex and returned to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1980. Brown, who registered 165 penalty minutes in 57 regular-season games, added 59 more minutes in his playoff appearances. His lone fight came late in the fifth match of the Stanley Cup Finals, with the Edmonton Oilers about to win the game and the Cup.
Over the summer of 1985 and during training camp, Brown continued to work on his skating and set a goal of earning increased ice time the next season. But he also had some fun.
As intimidating as he was on the ice, Brown kept teammates loose in the locker room and became one of the most popular players on the club. His sense of humor was on full display when he posed alongside teammate Daryl Stanley in full Blues Brothers regalia, including hat and sunglasses, for a "Bruise Brothers" t-shirt that became one of the Flyers hottest selling merchandize items of the 1980s. Years later, he donned Santa Claus attire to pose for the cover of the holiday edition of Philadelphia Flyer Magazine.
Away from the ice, Brown was one of the Flyers' biggest music buffs. A fan of the band Dire Straits, Brown caught the band's 1985 tour to support their Brothers in Arms
album.For Part 2 of Flyers Heroes of the Past: Dave Brown, click here.