THE HEART OF TEXAS: How Ann Arbor became home for Chris Brown
The click of cowboy boots follows Chris Brown everywhere. Find him in any sort of weather — rain, snow, sun — and he’s wearing those boots, trudging through the long Michigan winters wearing something that was intended for a climate more than a thousand miles south.
Around Ann Arbor, he drives a massive black pick-up truck with Texas license plates slapped on it, a not-so-subtle reminder of the Division-I hockey player’s transplanted background.
And there is the music he listens to before games, so different than the hip-hop and electronic beats that usually flow in the locker rooms of Yost Ice Arena. Chris prefers country artists like Kenny Chesney and The Casey Donahue Band, whose most popular song is called “White Trash Story.”
The lost cowboy plays the most un-Texan sport out there on a team that has never seen someone of his lineage.
“He’s not a typical Michigan kid,” said Michigan forward Kevin Lynch. “Maybe other people would have adapted in moving to Michigan, or would be taking on a different lifestyle, but he’s still a Texan at heart.”
Sitting on his couch in Flower Mound, Texas, Chris took in the 1996 NCAA Hockey Championship with his dad and fell in love with the winged helmets. After the game, he stood up and announced that he was going to play hockey for Michigan. He was 5.
But his journey, this adventure, doesn’t happen without a little pair of skates that have been passed down from family member to family member, filling out the Brown family tree one first-skate at a time.
Long before there were cowboy boots, there were skates.
The skates are small and nondescript, black with white laces, but they have helped every Brown on every side of the family tree on the first skate, the only steady thing going in a time of slips, falls and tears.
Chris was the first to use them, back when he was just two-and-a-half years old, because his mom, Candice, had to finally release the ball of energy that was running around her house at 10 months.
Hockey was the only sport Chris was old enough to play. It also helped that his dad played college hockey at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania and knew what he was doing.
The first day he started skating, Chris was jumping over sticks placed around the rink,
“I’ve been on roller blades and skates for as long as I can remember,” Chris said. “My mom always used to joke that I can skate better than I can walk.”
He was big enough to play with 5-year-old kids when he turned 3, playing on his first team before he started kindergarten. Chris was a full two years younger than a lot of kids he was playing with, and he was still making waves.
“I remember one of the 5-year-old’s mom came up to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, he is going to love to play hockey,’ ” Candice said. “Even at 3 years old, if you got in his way, you were probably going down.”
When the Browns picked up and returned back to Flower Mound — a suburb about 45 minutes from Dallas — after a quick stay in Pittsburgh, they brought the hockey with them to a state where football is the religion of choice.
In middle school, everyone his age was playing football and so he did, too, through his freshman year of high school. His best sport was baseball, but still, everything in Chris’s life revolved around hockey.
The other sports were just avenues for staying in shape for hockey and hanging out with his friends. The conditioning was his favorite part — he thought two-a-days were “awesome.”
But he would miss football games and baseball tournaments for hockey practices, not confusing his passions for even a second. Football is king in Texas, but Chris was far more interested in the sport played on ice.
As he continued to move up in the ranks, the travel increased. The level of hockey played in Texas simply doesn’t compare to hockey on the East Coast, in the Upper Midwest or in Canada, even if it has come a long way in the last 20 years.
“My biggest goal growing up in Dallas was to play for the Texas Tornadoes, the North American Hockey League team, because that was the goal for everyone,” Chris said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get out of Texas and play.”
He was on the road every weekend, taking long plane rides across the country to play in high-level tournaments, running out of space to show colleges and the NHL the type of hockey player he could be.
Chris was getting too big for Texas.
Rob Krohl, one of the best prep coaches in the country, approached Chris’s dad after Chris’ freshman year of high school in Flower Mound to have him come play for his Honey Baked club team in Detroit with some of the best amateur players around.
If Chris wanted to play for Michigan, this was the golden opportunity. He could turn a spot with Honey Baked into a spot on the United States National Developmental Team, which send a few players to Michigan every year.
The USNDT is based in Ann Arbor and consistently feeds players to top college programs. If he was going to play on a team in high school, this was the one to play on. But first, he had to get on the junior team.
Krohl had Chris travel to Toronto with his Honey Baked team to play in a top-prospect camp, which was essentially a tryout for the team.
Chris scored seven goals in that tournament, and his spot was cemented.
But for all this to unfold, Chris had to leave Texas. At age 15, he had to leave everything he had ever known and move to a city where he knew no one and to a culture he knew nothing about, living with a family he had never met. Chris would have to learn things by himself that ordinary teenagers do with their parents, such as how to manage money or how to drive a car.
The decision was made for itself.
“I put it in my head that if this is something you want to do, you have to make a commitment now and decide this is what you want to do for the rest of your life,” Chris said.
Facing the prospect of having her eldest child leave the house at 15, Candice said no. He was too young to be living on his own.
But after Chris told her she was the only one against him leaving, Candice relented, saying she wouldn’t be the one to hold him back from his dreams.
“It was terrible,” Candice said. “Besides the death of my mother, putting him on that plane was the hardest thing I have ever done.”
Chris still claims that regardless of whether it is sunny or cloudy, Candice wears sunglasses when she is driving him to the airport. It could be the darkest day of winter, but if she is driving Chris to the airport, those sunglasses are going down.
To this day, more than six years later, dropping Chris off at the airport makes Candice cry.
So Chris started over in Michigan, living in Saline with a host family that Krohl had set him up with. Soon after, the USNDT team came calling, where he would be playing with future Wolverines A.J. Treais and Lynch.
There was still an adjustment period.
On his first day of class at Pioneer High School, the Texan answered a question the same way he had his entire life: with a “yes, ma’am.” His teacher stared Chris down, telling him not to call her ma’am.
Chris answered with another “yes, ma’am.”
She sent him out to the hallway, where the confused newcomer got a lecture on why using “sir” and “ma’am” was disrespectful to a young teacher.
Click. Click. Click.
Chris stopped at the second level of Yost Ice Arena during his sophomore year of high school, pausing to admire the arena of the team he had wanted to play for as long as he could remember. Then-Michigan assistant coach Mel Pearson continued, venturing to the club level seats that sit directly above the Michigan bench.
Click. Click. Click.
The cowboy boots slowly clicked as Brown maneuvered up the stairs of Yost, lifting his eye line up to the endless rows of banners that adorn the rafters of the historic building.
He sat down next to Pearson, who talked up the tradition and success of the Michigan hockey program, even though he didn’t have to sell anything to the kid that watched that 1996 National Championship game.
This meeting with Pearson was the first visit Brown had made to a university and the first time he had been in Yost. He also hadn’t met head coach Red Berenson yet.
So when Pearson offered a scholarship, Brown had to excuse himself to call his parents back in Texas.
Click. Click. Click.
“Chris told us, ‘Dad, I have had no interest in going anywhere else, my whole life, but here,’ ” his father, Chris, remembers.
The phone call lasted less than a minute.
The flag unfurls, covering the heads of at least 40 students in the student section, called “The Children of Yost.” Chris has just scored a goal, and the students are going crazy, the lone-star flag shaking like it’s on a pole during a windy day.
Shortly after, the crowd hears the song that makes Chris different from every other Michigan hockey player.
That song is “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and it was the brainchild of Michigan Hockey Band director John Pasquale, who also hails from Texas. He started playing the song after the Children of Yost made a Texas flag that bounces over the top of the student section after a Chris goal or big play, things that have happened with increasing occurrence.
“The Texas flag is a nice thing,” Berenson said. “Plus, I love the song.”
The flag is not unique to Brown — current New York Ranger Carl Hagelin had a Swedish flag last year — but the combination of the song and the flag is.
The adoration certainly has something to do with Chris’s interesting background, but it’s also the massive hits, the scuffles and the trips to the penalty box.
“For me, it’s mostly his style of play,” said Chase Brown, Chris’s brother, who is a freshman at Michigan and plays on the club hockey team. “He’s more of a physical player, and that draws people in. He is different than everyone else’s typical player.”
The adoration comes from moments like the one in the beginning of February, when Michigan was up big on Miami (Ohio) late in the game. Senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick had been getting more attention than usual, and frustration was mounting on both sides. With a little more than a minute left in the game, Chris and RedHawk defenseman Will Weber dropped gloves and tried to throw a few punches.
There was a big game against Michigan State the next weekend, and fighting in college hockey earns an automatic suspension. Still, Chris couldn’t let anyone mess with his goalie. His teammates are more important than anything.
But most importantly, it’s the tattoo on his right shoulder, which depicts two crossed hockey sticks with flags draped over them. One flag is a combination of the Texas state flag and the American flag, and the other is a Michigan flag.
His country and state split a stick, but his school gets its own.
Before the 2009 NHL Draft, the Browns received a phone call they weren’t expecting from the Phoenix Coyotes, who asked if either of Chris’s parents were psychologists or in the psycho-analysis field. A bit confused, the Browns said no. Why?
Every NHL prospect takes a hockey IQ test before the draft, similar to the Wonderlic prior to the NFL draft.
According to the Coyotes, Chris had received the best score the team had ever given out. They wanted to know if his parents had helped him with the test.
The Browns assured them that Chris scored that on his own — so the Coyotes picked him early in the second round in 2009, 36th overall, as the fifth American taken.
When he was a prospect, the biggest knock against Chris was his offensive repertoire, which scouts thought needed more refinement. The size, physicality and defense were always there, but he hadn’t tied everything together offensively.
Flash forward to February 2012.
With Michigan up 2-0 on Miami, Chris got the puck in the Michigan zone and took off, going from one side of the ice to the other before getting to the RedHawk zone. He leaned right while sliding the puck in between the legs of Weber before shifting to his left and recovering the puck.
Miami goaltender Connor Knapp didn’t have a chance. He didn’t flinch until the puck was past his left shoulder.
The entire play took about five seconds.
“I think he’s come a long way since the first time I saw him play,” Treais said. “He was kind of raw in the beginning. Everyone knew he was going to be good because he was so big and he had a great shot, but he’s out there making plays now and he’s smarter with the puck.”
Chris has led every team he has ever played on in penalty minutes (he leads senior defenseman Greg Pateryn by one measly minute, entering this weekend), but those penalties are never high-sticking or hooking.
They are almost always boarding or cross-checking. A player who gets hit by Chris is going to go a lot further than normal, which referees aren’t used to seeing. The wrecking ball plays within the rules, but he tries to bend them as much as he can.
“I’m in the game and I’m going to hit people,” Chris said. “I think the coaches and everyone else knows that. I’m going to be physical. If you happen to fall too far from the boards, I’m sorry, but that’s how I am going to play.”
More than six years after he moved, Chris is still every bit the Texan. Moving to Michigan and playing a sport that is so very un-Texan seemingly hasn’t changed him at all.
The ceiling for Chris remains to be found. After the season, he is a front-runner to be a captain next year, expanding the role he has filled in his whole career.
“Brown’s got a lot of respect on this team,” Berenson said. “He’s a classy kid, a serious student and a player who is getting better every year.
“I like everything about Brown’s game.”
After Michigan, who knows. He could see himself teaching kindergarten after hockey — how many future NHL players would say that?
Chris will be welcomed in Phoenix, where he has the potential to have a lengthy NHL career.
He will be back in the desert, back where people will understand why he is wearing cowboy boots.
The locals will understand the boots, but they won’t understand the skates.
Click. Click. Click.