SAN JOSE, California
- Not that long ago, it never would have occurred to Justin Braun that he could make a living playing in the National Hockey League.
At 18, he was one of the unchosen ones in the NHL Draft.
That same year, in 2005-06, he played for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, and made extra money on frosty Sunday afternoons working as an usher during Packers games at Lambeau Field.
At 19, he headed off to play defense at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, figuring he’d parlay his hockey skills into a college degree.
And then, at 20, Braun came to realize maybe the NHL wasn’t such a remote possibility, after all. In the 2007 draft, the native of suburban St. Paul, Minn., learned he had been selected in the seventh round by the San Jose Sharks.
“I was excited about getting drafted, but then I went to my first development camp in San Jose,” Braun, now 26, recently recalled. “That’s when I realized I had a lot of work to do.”
Fortunately for the Sharks, Braun was willing to put in the hard labor needed to transform himself into an NHL defenseman.
And during the shortened 2013 season, Braun’s role on the Sharks evolved dramatically as General Manager Doug Wilson performed a mid-year transformation of the team’s roster.
It was the development of young defensemen like Braun and Matt Irwin that cleared the way for Wilson to trade popular blueliner Douglas Murray to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two second round draft selections in March.
Braun’s speed was a quality the Sharks needed on the backend as they transitioned to a more up-tempo style of play.
The quicker pace at which the Sharks played later in the season proved to be integral to a first-round playoff sweep of the Vancouver Canucks. And it almost enabled the Sharks to advance to the Western Conference Final before losing a heartbreaking, seven-game second-round series to Los Angeles.
“We think he’s a really important part of our team because of how we play, getting the puck out of our zone and moving the puck,” Wilson said. “He’s a very smart player, very detailed, he plays all three zones and he defends extremely well.”
The development of the Sharks young defensemen had another important side effect last season. It allowed Head Coach Todd McLellan to completely alter the role of Brent Burns, who during last season went from working the blue line to becoming an extremely effective power forward, a role Burns will continue this season.
Braun grew up in Vadnais Heights, Minn., and from an early age, spent virtually every free minute lacing up his skates and playing outdoor hockey with his friends at the neighborhood rink.
“If you wanted to make friends as a kid you would go to the rink, skate and play hockey,” Braun recalled. “You would get some used skates at the sporting-goods store and stay out as long as you could until you’d freeze.”
For most of his childhood, there was no local NHL team to root for. In 1993, when Braun was six, the Minnesota North Stars picked up and moved to Dallas. NHL hockey didn’t return to the Twin Cities until 2000, when the Minnesota Wild franchise was established. Braun said he spent much of his childhood rooting not for an NHL team but for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
At 18, Braun co-captained White Bear Lake High School to the Minnesota hockey tournament, an event that is every bit as important in that state as the high school basketball tournament is in Indiana.
After the experience at the Minnesota tournament, Braun headed off to Green Bay for a 10-game trial, and he returned to the Gamblers for the entire 2005-06 season. One of the standout memories from that year was ushering at Lambeau Field on the day the Packers retired the number of the late, legendary defensive lineman, Reggie White.
“It was a fun job,” Braun said of his stint as an usher. “You had to stand for a long time and it was pretty cold, but it was fun.”
Braun’s next stop was Massachusetts, where he played for four seasons.
“I had no dreams of the NHL,” Braun said. “I was happy to get to a school and go from there. I just wanted to keep my career alive.”
During Braun’s final two years of college, his defense partner was Irwin, who would become a future Sharks teammate in Worcester and San Jose. Irwin and Braun have become close through the years.
“When I came to UMass-Amherst, he was a big help to me, transitioning from junior hockey to playing in college,” Irwin said. “Then we went to Worcester together and he was a big help there. We hung out outside of the rink a lot and went through the ins and outs of what pro hockey brings.”
Passed over by the NHL in 2005, Braun finally heard his name called in the 2007 draft, though not until the final round. Wilson says unearthing talent in the later rounds of the draft is pivotal in building a winning franchise.
“When we watched him at UMass-Amherst, you could see he could think the game,” Wilson said. “It was a matter of him getting stronger to do the things he wanted to do.”
Braun was 20 when he arrived at the Sharks’ developmental camp in 2007. He was two years older than the other newly drafted players, and looked on in awe at what some of the others already were capable of.
“(Former Shark) Torrey Mitchell was out there, he flew past me, and I realized, ‘I’ve got to get faster, get stronger, and be a better skater just to step onto the ice with these guys,’ ” Braun recalled. “It was a real eye-opening experience.”
Braun made his NHL debut in 2010-11, appearing in 28 games. He spent virtually all of the following season in San Jose, and was preparing for his first full season a year ago when the lockout occurred.
During the labor stoppage, Braun signed to play in Finland, where he was struck by a puck that broke a bone in his left hand. Braun played through the injury the rest of the season, even though it affected his ability to shoot and pass.
He was able to contribute plenty to the Sharks despite the injury, serving as the defense partner of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Braun and Vlasic became the duo McLellan relied upon to lock down the opposition’s best offensive players.
It’s a role the duo will continue in 2013-14, but Wilson says he believes Braun can become more of an offensive contributor than he has been to this point. Braun enters this season with four goals in 135 NHL games.
As he takes the next step in his unlikely career, Braun has a variety of goals – including scoring more goals.
“I’d love to keep getting matched against other teams’ top lines,” he said. “I’d love to get five goals. I’d like to find the consistency (veteran teammates) Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart have. If I could do that for a full 82-game season and not have that lull, I’d feel pretty good about my year.”