The old hockey adage goes “you can’t teach size”, but despite standing 6’6” and weighing 225 pounds, Newfoundland Growlers forward Justin Brazeau saw his name go uncalled in three consecutive NHL entry drafts. Not being drafted didn’t necessarily equal no interest from teams however, as Brazeau was invited to the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks training camps before returning to the OHL for his overage season where he scored 61 goals along with 52 assists in 68 games en route to being named the OHL Overage Player of the Year. For some, that continued disappointment of not being drafted, along with leaving NHL camps year after year without a contract could have been the end of the road for their hockey dreams, but not Brazeau.
“Every year leading up to the draft I always had my hopes high, and unfortunately it didn’t work out in that sense”, Brazeau said following a recent practice at Mile One Centre. “It was definitely tough, but it motivated me every summer to get back to the gym and work to get better for the next year”.
A native of New Liskeard, Ontario, a small city with a population of about 10,000 people which lies on the Ontario and Quebec border, and about five-and-a-half hours outside of Toronto, Brazeau is used to having to work that much harder to prove himself. After his first season playing major midget with the New Liskeard Cubs where he put up 29 points in 30 games, he was drafted 254th overall in the 2014 OHL Draft by the North Bay Battalion. And while he’s not making any excuses for not getting selected higher, the forward admits he didn’t have the luxury of the same exposure many other teams in Ontario receive.
“Obviously being where I’m from, there wasn’t a lot of attention and I knew I wasn’t going to go too high, and then on top of that being a late pick can be tough to prove yourself, but once I got an opportunity in North Bay, Stan (Butler) gave me a good shot and he believed in me which was a big thing for me”.
Now in St. John’s with the Growlers, the 21-year-old is putting his junior career behind him, and focusing on showing the Toronto Maple Leafs why he was worth taking a gamble on when they signed him to a two-year American Hockey League contract on April 4th, 2019.
The big winger has a true power forward frame to go along with elite hands that would rival any small sniper, but Brazeau heard time and time again that the knock against him is that he can’t skate, which is one reason that led him to the Maple Leafs organization. The Maple Leafs are committed to seeing what Brazeau can offer, so much so that he has been spending his summers with former Olympian and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame member Barb Underhill, who is a member of Toronto’s staff as a skating consultant.
“The way the Leafs laid out a plan for me, and their whole organizational plans from top to bottom going forward, it was clear for me that it made the most sense to sign here”, explained Brazeau. “The thing that stuck out the most to me was their commitment to me as far as having me going to Toronto in the summer to skate and train with them, and then being with Barb all the time – it just made the most sense”.
“Especially when I first started in the OHL, it (skating) just wasn’t there”, Brazeau said. “It’s still not where I want it to be, but it has improved a lot and Barb is a big part of that”.
The ECHL still holds a certain stigma of being a league where players are sent to banish, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are reversing that notion by implementing a three-tier development model, to which the seemingly always positive Brazeau thinks is a benefit to him.
“There’s only 10 forwards at this level, which is huge. Just getting a chance to play in all situations and getting comfortable playing my game”, said the big winger. “I knew going in when I signed with the Leafs they had a lot of guys, and I obviously want to get with the Marlies, but for now I can just come down here, play my game and work at it to get better”.
The adjustment to the pro ranks is always a challenge for the fresh-faced rookies. Aside from playing in a new league with new coaches and systems, you’re now living in your own place without billets, but with 28 points in 31 games, including a quick one-game stint with the AHL Marlies, Brazeau is showing a seamless transition.
“I think the first couple of games of the season I was feeling it out a bit more, but lately I’m happy with my play and I’m getting back to what I’m used to. Obviously, it was different getting used to a new league and the pace, but it’s been good”.