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Brown in battle for Baby Pens' backup spot

by Lindsay Kramer /

Goaltender David Brown is hoping to continue the success he had at Notre Dame with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
At first, this whole pro hockey thing was tough for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goalie David Brown to swallow.

That would have been at the beginning of Pittsburgh’s training camp, when he was stricken with strep throat.

“Every time I swallowed, it was like swallowing a bag of nails,’’ Brown said. “There couldn’t have been a worse way to start camp. The doctor told me to stay away from the rink, due to being contagious.’’

Brown eventually made it back, and then it was time for a real big gulp. That was when he faced, and stopped, Jordan Staal, Sidney Crosby and Mark Recchi in a scrimmage shootout.

“That was kind of the highlight of the camp for myself. That’s something I’m not too familiar with, being from the NCAA,’’ said Brown, who is fresh out of Notre Dame. “I got a little lucky there. It’s kind of surreal. You get a quick peek at who it is (shooting). Once they’re bearing down on you, you forget about who they are.’’

The practice heroics didn’t buy Brown, an eighth-round pick in 2004, much extra time in Pittsburgh. He was among the Penguins’ first send-downs, in large part because the strep kept him from making his case.

That’s OK. Brown, 22, knows all about being the big man on campus, so to speak. Learning to scrap from the bottom on up should sharpen a whole new skill set.

Brown joins the organization after an ascendant four-year run for the Fighting Irish that was capped by a senior season which tagged him as perhaps the best collegiate goalie in the country.

He started 39 of Notre Dame’s 42 games, going 30-6-3 with a 1.58 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage with six shutouts. He led the nation in wins and goals-against average, was second in shutouts and tied for second in save percentage. He may not have been Brady Quinn on the walking across campus recognition scale, but he was a reasonable facsimile for a hockey program in need of its own golden boy.

“Going there and having success was great for the program in general,’’ he said. “I wasn’t looking to be a celebrity. It was nice to see the fans’ support for hockey really rise over the four years I was there. I was just trying to help put Notre Dame hockey on the map.’’

That admirable goal was a long way from Brown’s origins in the sport. Actually, he almost didn’t have any.

When he was a youngster growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Brown’s father took him to a hockey school. After standing around on the ice with no pucks and then toddling around with chairs, Brown would have preferred that his day had been spent at the dentist’s office.

“It really was not fun at all,’’ he said. “It got real boring. I walked away from it.’’

That he ever walked back into it at all was something of a fluke. His father took him to an autograph signing by Patrick Roy, and after waiting in line to get a scribble from the legend, Brown found himself hooked on the position.

“I guess I was so in awe that I wanted to follow in his footsteps,’’ Brown said. “I’ve been a goaltender ever since. I guess that was a good career decision for me.’’

There aren’t any dissenters in South Bend. Brown appeared in 111 career games, making 106 starts with a 2.32 goals-against average (first all-time), a .916 save percentage (first) and 12 shutouts (first) He finished his career with a 55-38-11 record for the second-highest wins total in program history.

“Being successful at the college level has given me a good opportunity within the Pittsburgh system. It probably does more for your confidence to know what you’ve done,’’ he said. “But everybody coming here is vying for a spot. They’re going to take the best player available. At this point (in the pros), everybody is the best.’’

Right now, Brown is probably looking at a skate-to-skate battle with fellow rookie John Curry for the backup job in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Whoever comes up short initially will probably toggle back and forth between the Penguins and the ECHL. Like Brown, Curry is a college hotshot. The free agent out of Boston University ranked fourth in the nation with a 2.01 goals-against average, sixth with a .928 save percentage, ninth with 2,154 minutes played and first with seven shutouts. And, like Brown, he was a Hobey Baker finalist.

So Brown, who didn’t have to sweat for a minute’s worth of playing time at Notre Dame, finds himself in the unusual position of fighting for a mere caddy’s spot with the Penguins.

“You don’t really have a choice. I’m just trying to put myself in the best position possible to play games,’’ Brown said. “It’s a little bit different than in college, where there’s more security. That’s the process of becoming a pro.’’

If Brown does well, it could be a process greatly eased by his surroundings. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s rabid fan base (8,030 per game last season, second in the AHL) gives it the feel of a college town where hockey rules.

A hot goalie there would be the equivalent of the region’s homecoming king.

“It’s as simple as that? It’s just a matter of stopping the puck, right?’’ Brown joked. “I understand Wilkes-Barre is a very great town. I’m just looking to help the team win. I’m not looking for any celebrity status.’’

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