It was inevitable, new Lightning forward JT Brown said, that he would end up in Tampa Bay one way or another.
When his alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, lost out in the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championships, it all but eliminated Brown’s chances of earning a trip to Tampa Bay, which hosts the NCAA Frozen Four next week at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
So instead, Brown elected to give up his final two years of NCAA eligibility and sign a two-year contract with the Lightning on Wednesday that has him set to make both his NHL and team debut tonight against the Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Brown said. “I thought maybe I would have gotten the chance to come down here for the [NCAA] tournament if we kept going, but I guess now it doesn’t matter. I’m here either way.”
Brown, highly regarded as the nation’s top college free agent, wasn’t eligible to enter the NHL Draft as a 21-year-old who had played hockey for at least one season in North America.
The advantage, though, is that Brown was able to pick which team he wanted to play for. According to several reports, the forward had narrowed his choices to Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Boston before ultimately choosing the Lightning.
“I knew Tampa Bay was a team on the rise and that they’re known for being a good organization that is heading in the right direction,” Brown said. “I felt this was a good opportunity for me and they have some great players here, so there is definitely a lot to like.”
Brown is not only speaking for himself.
Despite standing just 5-foot-10 in stature, and weighing in at 170 pounds, Brown brings passion and an inherent pedigree of athleticism, as his father, Ted, starred as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings in the National Football League in the early 1980s. The younger Brown is also known to be an exceptional skater who is strong on the puck and who is committed to defense. In 81 career games with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, with whom he won an NCAA championship in 2011, he collected 40 goals to go along with 109 penalty minutes, showcasing a combination of his prolific scoring ability, as well as some grit.
Just days after Brown's collegiate career with Minnesota-Duluth fell short of this year's NCAA Frozen Four, he joined the Lightning in Tampa.
“He has all the top characteristics we look for in a player, including high skill and compete levels,” Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman said. “We’re glad he chose to play for the Lightning.”
Yzerman, as well as his senior advisor, Tom Kurvers, had scouted Brown heavily. Kurvers, a former University of Minnesota-Duluth alumnus himself, was impressed with what he saw and lobbied for the club to sign the youngster.
“He plays hard both ways, he’s aggressive, he has speed, moves the puck, has a scoring knack and is a clutch performer,” Kurvers told the Duluth News-Tribune. “His competitiveness is so noticeable that he has a little evil streak.”
Brown, who arrived in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, has not yet gone through even one practice with the team, but Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher told the media Saturday morning that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw the rookie forward right into the mix.
“He’ll play the remaining five games for sure, and he’s going to get some ice time with some quality players,” Boucher said.
“He’ll have a chance to show some of our scouts and our GM what they’ve seen in him.”
“I just hope to contribute where I can,” Brown added. “I’m anxious to get out on the ice and be part of the team.”