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THE HEART OF TEXAS: How Ann Arbor became home for Chris Brown

BY EVERETT COOK
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 15, 2012

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.

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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.


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