STOCKTON, Calif. – You can take away Brandon Davidson’s hair. But you can’t take away his spirit.
Sporting a clean shaven head as a rookie defenseman of the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, the 21 year old Edmonton Oilers prospect has battled his share of obstacles. They’re more than a hulking body at the front of his net, or a goaltender challenging his rocket shot from the point.
He recently overcame the biggest one of his life: testicular cancer.
Just a little over four months ago and only a few weeks into his first full season as a pro in the American Hockey League, Davidson received the diagnosis that turned his world upside down.
Flash ahead through one round of chemotherapy, phone calls with his girlfriend and parents and visits from his Oklahoma City Barons teammates in The Peggy and Charles Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City – who knew he’d be back on the ice before Valentine’s Day?
February 8, 2013 symbolized a night of victory – not just for the Barons (4-3 over the Grand Rapids Griffins) – but for Davidson’s life. It was his first game back after a full recovery.
“I was overwhelmed,” said Davidson, recently showing traces of hair returning to his scalp and face following successful treatment. “Just (hearing) the fans cheering and finally getting back out there – I wasn’t even expecting to play that night. When I was able to get into the lineup due to an injury, it was quite amazing and definitely an experience I’ll have forever.”
It was a springboard to a spectacular breakout month. After taking a plane ride to California for the next leg of his professional journey in the ECHL (via assignment to Stockton), Davidson has swiftly upgraded the Thunder blueline and elevated his game.
It didn’t take long for him to leave a mark. In spectacular and storybook fashion, his first two goals as a pro came in his Thunder debut and in dramatic moments. With the Thunder trailing the Pacific Division leading Ontario Reign 1-0 in the third period, Davidson took a pass in the slot with 5:23 left and ripped a wrist shot to the back of the net.
Tie game. A crowd of 5,145 at Stockton Arena came off the hinges as Davidson celebrated jubilantly with his teammates.
It got better.
On a power play with 1:57 left in overtime, Davidson hammered a one timer from the slot to bury Ontario for the winning goal. In just his third game back following recovery, Davidson came through in the clutch – quite fitting for a player who has proven to carry plenty of poise.
“That was amazing,” said Davidson. “I can’t really explain that either. I felt slow for most of the game and in the third period I told myself ‘I’m going to do this.’ I was glad to finally get the opportunity to play again and thought I better make the most of it. It was very good that I was able to help get those two points.”
In just nine games, Davidson has already assembled ten points while helping the Thunder clinch a playoff berth at its fastest pace in team history (before March). His sizeable six-foot-one frame and efficient play in the defensive zone have settled the Thunder’s game.
Since his arrival, Stockton has allowed just 18 goals in nine games, translating its new “lock down” mentality into six wins during that stretch.
“He’s a born leader,” said Thunder goaltender and fellow Oilers prospect Tyler Bunz. “Anytime you see a guy like him coming out of the gate on the next shift, you feel a little more confident that the job is going to get done. He’s not out looking for goals. He makes smart plays in the defensive zone and we communicate really well on the ice.”
Bunz’s play has elevated with a .916 save percentage since Davidson’s arrival.
“(Brandon) is a well rounded player and very dependable,” said Thunder head coach Matt Thomas. “I feel very comfortable putting him on the ice in any situation – offensively or defensively. It’s a hard thing for a young defenseman, as a pro, to not have a lot of holes in your game. To me, he’s a very complete defenseman and it’s a rare thing to see in a first year player.”
“He has composure and swagger,” said Bunz. “You feel safe as a goalie.”
That composure comes from a long line of conquered challenges.
Before Davidson cleared the hurdles that threatened his health, he faced an uphill battle just to get on the professional stage. As a native of Taber, Alberta – a town boasting a population of over 8,000 and more famous for its production of corn than strapping blueliners – he grew up on a farm with little resources to support his dream of playing professional hockey.
He had to earn his spot on the Regina Pats as a walk-on in the Western Hockey League. He eventually became team captain. Nearly three years ago, his name hit the NHL Entry Draft board in Los Angeles when Edmonton picked him in the sixth round.
His ability to deal with all kinds of adversity grabbed the attention of the Oilers.
“It speaks volumes about who (Brandon) is and how driven he is to be a player,” said Oilers assistant general manager & director of hockey operations/legal affairs Ricky Olczyk. “When the unfortunate situation occurred with cancer, we had the utmost confidence in him that he’d go through it. He met the challenge head on.”
In his first full season, Davidson faced tests of defensive aptitude in several practices with Oklahoma City.
Not so fast. The NHL lockout and a few Edmonton reinforcements entered the picture, resulting in one of the most stacked teams that the Barons have ever put on ice.
Frequently racing down Davidson’s side in those practices were Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“Those guys are highly skilled,” Davidson said with a grin. “I always took it as an opportunity to become better during practice. It was fun whether you got beat or if you stopped them. You had the chance to test your level of ability.”
It seems like no matter where he’s gone, a test awaits. But no matter the test – whether it’s in life or hockey – this Oilers prospect always seems to find a way to ace it.
“I’m happy as can be and happy that hockey is coming together for me,” said Davidson.
Coming from a prospect with a remarkable fighting spirit, who can’t be happy with that progress?