One big question North Bay Battalion fans had at the beginning of the 2018-19 season was; Will Justin Brazeau get signed by an NHL club? After a few weeks into the campaign, it wasn’t a question of if, but when.
That question was dragged out right to the off-season when finally on April 4th, Brazeau inked a two year deal with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, the affiliate club of his favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“No way would I have believed it,” says Brazeau over the phone when asked if he could tell his younger self that he would one day be in the organization he grew up cheering for.
“I’m so thankful to be a part of this team and I really want to work hard to hopefully one day wear that Leafs jersey.”
He is a step closer to that goal right now than he was at this time a year ago. Brazeau is coming off his first development camp as a signed player.
He’s been here before; last year as an invitee with the San Jose Sharks, but Brazeau says this camp does feel different, knowing there is a job waiting for him. Still, he’s not resting on that knowledge, knowing the work is never done in pursuit of that next step in his career, “my skating has always been that thing that I have to improve on, but I feel like I did that a lot in my last season (with the Battalion) so now it’s about putting that extra work in and getting up to speed at a higher level.”
Brazeau is already working with the Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill, and he says that is going to be one of the most important things he does this summer as he’s never had a power-skating coach.
“I will get on the ice with her as much as I can. I know the weak point in my game has been my skating, I’ve heard it my whole career," said the big forward.
"So the stuff with Barb will be really big for me going forward.”
It’s remarkable to see a 21-year old acknowledge the flaw in his game and want to work on it. Battalion assistant coach Adam Dennis says, that’s not new when it comes to Brazeau’s work ethic.
“He was never out there, just to be out there,” said Dennis.
“There was always something that he wanted to work on, whether it was a set up on the power play, or a shot he wanted to try, or a move on the breakaway. Everything was purposeful with Justin, and it just goes to show you, something we preach a lot, is you never want to waste a minute because it goes by quick and Justin never wasted a minute.”
And his time in Toronto has not been wasted. He’s living downtown and was able to take in the scenes of what it could be like if the Maple Leafs ever win a championship. He was right in the middle of the celebrations when the Toronto Raptors were on their way to their first NBA championship. He says “it was pretty amazing, you go out on your balcony and just hear the roar of the crowd from the streets and the ‘Go Raptors Go’ chants breaking out everywhere, and it was fun to watch.”
Although he loves basketball, and saw the impact the Raptors had on the city, he believes, “a Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup celebration would be even bigger, this city is still a hockey first city.”
Everything seems faster paced at this level, and it’s only July. But in this portion of a player’s career, there is a lot of information to take in and try to retain over the next few weeks in the summer. Brazeau says they go through just as much off-ice training as the on-ice workouts, although not all of it has to do with the game. He says they have sessions on everything from how to eat properly, as well as how to conduct yourself as a professional athlete, “we had three or four seminars on social media habits and what to do and say in front of the media,” said Brazeau.
With Toronto being one of, if not THE biggest hockey media market, Brazeau says there’s always someone who wants a word with the players, “after every on-ice session, there is a reporter who wants to chat with you. Someone who wants to hear what you have to say, it is pretty eye-opening.”
Brazeau’s story in itself is eye opening. A 13th round draft pick from New Liskeard, Ontario that was never selected in the NHL entry draft. Passed over three times and yet, through hard work and sheer determination, has found himself in the conversation of being a part of a roster for an NHL team.
Dennis says they can use Brazeau’s story as a teaching tool.
“I think it’s something that as coaches, it’s something we use all the time to show kids that everyone’s path is different,” said Dennis.
“This generation, more than any other, they want to get to their final destination right away, and sometimes it’s not always a straight shot. But if you believe in it, and you work at it, if you prioritize what’s important, Brazeau is a great example of what you can accomplish.”
He adds, “I don’t think he’s done by any means.”
This will be the toughest season yet in Brazeau’s career. It’s the first of a two-year deal and it has to not only be a learning season but a productive one as well. But if we’re being honest, he’s a kid who has heard that basically since he was drafted by the Battalion and not only did he meet the expectations, he has surpassed them in every way to this point.