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Brown's journey to Leafs a tale of perseverance

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs



If you’re a young hockey player who doesn’t have the physical size of some of your teammates, you’re likely to find inspiration in the developmental path of Maple Leafs winger Connor Brown. Although he’s just four games into his NHL career – and scored his first goal as a Leaf on March 24 against the Anaheim Ducks – the 22-year-old Toronto native was never a sure bet to play in hockey’s greatest league.

But where there were obstacles and challenges along the way – some of them natural, and some that came in the heat of on-ice battle – Brown persevered and now provides an example of the drive and determination required to realize a lifelong dream.

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Long before the Leafs selected him 156th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, Brown was making a name for himself on rinks in and around his hometown because of his understanding of the game. He was a natural athlete who, every summer, tried out for (and made) his local rep teams for soccer, baseball and lacrosse. But his focus was never far from his family’s backyard rink, a hockey stick and a puck. And his mind was always so finely attuned to the game, when he got to the bantam and minor-midget levels, he began crafting a path for himself in the sport.

However, as he progressed – first, making the Tier II St. Michael’s Buzzers in 2010-11, then the Ontario League’s Erie Otters the following season – Brown’s body didn’t grow at the same rate as his mind. And although he still impressed on the scoresheet, putting up 25 goals and 53 points in 68 games in his rookie season with the Otters, his physique took a while longer to catch up.

“Connor’s always had really good vision and hockey I.Q.,” said Brown’s father, Dan, who coached him in his formative years. “Though the latter part of his minor hockey career, his minor-midget year, he was still waiting for a man’s body to come along. That really didn’t happen until his second year of junior. Once that happened, he increased his speed and was able to gain some confidence.”

That confidence reflected in his statistics: Brown followed up his rookie year in Erie by posting 28 goals and 69 points in five fewer games in 2012-13 – and in his final OHL season, he amassed a whopping 45 goals and 128 points in 68 games. Part of that growth could be attributed to confidence, but he also spent no small amount of time working on his physical frame and with renowned Leafs development coach Barb Underhill on his skating, and he can see the results in both areas today.

“You definitely spend a lot of time in the gym,” said Brown, who spends his summers either on the golf course or at the family cottage north of Toronto. “I’m strong in the right places – core and legs – so I think I don’t get pushed around, and that’s something I’ve worked really hard at, and it’s come a long way, so it’s nice to know I can play at this level at this strength. My skating when I got drafted needed some work, but now I think it’s one of my strong areas and that’s a big testament to Barb Underhill. I’ve worked with her for about four years now. I think a lot of it comes with strength and maturity, but it’s good to see it come along.”

Brown’s first year as a professional came last season with the American League’s Marlies, and although he may have surprised some people with the numbers he put up – 21 goals (including seven game-winners) and 61 points in 76 games to finish as the AHL’s top-scoring rookie, his teammates who’ve been along for the ride and seen him improve last year and this year understand Brown’s inner fire is what separates him from the rest of the pack.

“He cares so much about what he does on the ice,” said goalie Garret Sparks, who played with Brown on both this season’s and last season’s Marlies squads, and is currently his Leafs teammate. “He takes responsibility for everything he does, he’s accountable, and he’s a reliable player who plays honest and hard and has a lot of skill to go along with it.

“You can tell how fiery and competitive he is out on the ice, but until you spend time close to him, you don’t really realize the magnitude of that competitive nature.”

“His smarts and the way he sees the game, he really can read the play,” added centre William Nylander. “He’s become more and more dominant in the AHL, and if it wasn’t for his injury, I think he would’ve been up here (in the NHL) earlier this year.”

That injury – a fractured ankle Brown suffered blocking a shot in late October in an AHL game against Grand Rapids – was the first major injury of his career. It was particularly delicate because it was on a weight-bearing part of the body, and Brown missed most of the next three months that followed. But in his return to game action Jan. 24, it was as if no time had passed, and he scored twice in a 7-1 rout of Utica.

Since then, he’s produced at nearly a point-a-game pace (15 assist and 24 points in 28 games) before he was recalled to the Leafs March 17. His first two Leafs games after the call-up were somewhat of a blur, but as most players will tell you, the key to producing at any level of the sport is comfort. And in the third and fourth NHL games of his career – in which he put up a modest point streak that left him with a goal and three points through those four games – he’s starting to get there.

“For me, it was just about getting comfortable playing with (Veteran centre Tyler) Bozak yesterday,” Connor said. “That made it much easier. So I feel like I’m getting better every game and just trying to build upon that.”

“I didn’t think his first two games went the way he’s capable of playing,” added Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “He was a little tight. And I thought he relaxed and made some plays (against the Ducks) with Bozak and (winger Josh) Leivo.”

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Brown’s immediate future is likely to see him return to the deep and talented Marlies for what the organization hopes is a championship playoff run. But this current stretch at the NHL level is invaluable to his development, and serves as an inspiration for smaller players who haven’t developed physically yet, and a tantalizing taste of what he’ll be able to offer in the years ahead.

He’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, but Brown’s game and belief in himself makes his game much larger than that. And his brains and vision are more than half the battle when it comes to turning his childhood dreams of an NHL career into a reality.

“He’s a smart player,” veteran Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said of Brown. “He’s got hockey I.Q., he’s able to find the open guy, and if you’re producing offensively, you’re going to get more confidence. And with more confidence, you have more poise with the puck and are able to make more plays. So I think we can definitely see that from him in the future.”

“Size doesn’t exactly equate to heart and competitiveness,” added Sparks. “We’ve got some smaller guys here who’ll go up against anybody in the NHL, and they’re still young kids. So it shows a bit of fearlessness and a strong desire to be here. He grew up dreaming to be here and now he’s here, so I don’t see him letting off the gas any time.”

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