Michigan's Lone Star on the ice

BY NICK SPAR
Daily Sports Writer
Published August 8, 2009

It was in 2006 when coaches Rob Krohl and Pat Peake looked on at the Prospects Hockey Tournament in Toronto, billed as the best showcase of hockey talent in North America. Both were coaches for Detroit Honeybaked, a developmental hockey league that looked for the best of the best — NHL-caliber talent.

Then, Krohl and Peake's attention turned to one player. A high school sophomore burst through the neutral zone with the puck. Entering the opposing team’s end, he let a slap shot rip from two feet inside the blue line.

The puck flew over the goaltender’s left shoulder, ricocheted off the crossbar, and flew into the net. It was something the coaches had seen from Chris Brown before. After all, it was their invitation that brought Brown to the tournament. And he had lit the lamp seven times since hitting the ice.

Krohl and Peake continued to watch intently as the Flower Mound, Texas native made yet another dazzling play. Peake, a former forward for the Washington Capitals, turned to Krohl.

"That’s an NHL shot,” he said confidently.

The Lone Star Hockey Player

Brown, now an incoming freshman, did not take an ordinary path to Michigan. The first-ever Texas-born Michigan hockey recruit grew up on an ice rink while many of his closest friends spent their time on football and baseball fields.

He is an anomaly as far as Texas athletes go. In a hotbed for high school football, Brown knew hockey was more than just a childhood hobby for him, and at 18 years-old, Brown is one of the most promising prospects in America.

Despite his family’s Texas roots, hockey runs in the Brown family. Brown’s brother Chase, a high school junior, is also a hockey player, and his father, Chris, played Division-II hockey at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“My family has supported me through every decision I’ve ever made, whether it’s hockey-related or not,” Brown said. “It was really hard to have their son leave when he was 15 years old, so they deserve a lot of credit.”

Becoming a Wolverine

Brown made the trek from the small-town Dallas suburb to Michigan before his sophomore year of high school — and before the Wolverines had even contacted him. He came to play for Krohl and Peake, who recruited him for their Detroit Honeybaked travel team.

Brown journeyed 1000-plus miles to join Krohl and Peake. He joined a team consisting of four eventual 2009 NHL Entry Draft second-round picks and six players selected for the US Under-18 National Development Team. He knew he was playing with the country's best young talent.

Brown — one of those four second-round picks and six U.S. Development Team players — led the squad in goals (42) and points (74) and was named alternate captain by Krohl.

“The one thing that I was always impressed about him even before he came to play for me was how he could carry on a conversation,” Krohl said. “He was a very mature and a very polite kid — the type of kid that I would want to represent my hockey club.”

Krohl may have been the first to see Brown's potential but soon enough he wasn’t alone. Before the season even started, more teams in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area came calling.

First, the U.S. Development program, based in Ann Arbor, selected him to play for their Under-18 team in the 2008-09 season. The program has yielded American stars Patrick Kane, Rick DiPietro and Phil Kessel as well as former Michigan players Al Montoya, Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik and Mark Mitera. Pretty good company to say the least.

During his sophomore season, Brown also began talks with Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson, who told him no scholarship offer was available. They hadn't seen him play enough during his time in Flower Mound. Brown understood — recruiting Texans was unchartered territory for the Michigan hockey program, much less handing out scholarships.

But he didn’t have to wait long. Within the first month of the start of his season with the Honeybaked, Pearson and Michigan coach Red Berenson liked what they saw.

And the decision was easy for Brown.

“I was offered a scholarship and literally 30 seconds later I said, ‘Yes sir,'” Brown said. “Why would you turn down the best college hockey program in the country?”

Officially a Wolverine — and the most highly-touted recruit for the 2009-10 season — Brown joined the US Development Team in 2008 and left his mark on the score sheet. He was second on the team in power play goals (10) and first in PIM (120) in 62 games. His combination of an offensive skill set and a willingness to play a physical game is clearly why Michigan came knocking on his door.

The Draft Experience

On June 26 and 27, Brown was at the Bell Centre in Montreal for the NHL Draft, accompanied by his family, Krohl and Krohl’s father. Projected as a late-first round or early-second round selection, he was chosen as the sixth player in the second round, 36th overall, by the Phoenix Coyotes. He was the second American-born player taken overall, behind U.S. Development Team teammate Kyle Palmieri.

He described his time north of the border as “surreal,” and six weeks after becoming a Coyote, the fact that he has a potential future in the NHL is still sinking in day-by-day.

“To be a part of the selection process and to sit and experience everything — and then to finally hear your name called — is a dream come true,” Brown said. “I got my foot in the door and now it’s up to me to get better.”

Brown isn’t the first Michigan player to hear his name called by Phoenix. In the past five seasons, four Wolverines have become Coyotes via the draft. All four were also former U.S. Development Team players. Brown joins Porter, Kolarik and Michigan senior captain Chris Summers as players that have taken the path of the U.S. Development Team to Wolverines and finally to the Coyotes in the NHL.

Playing for the Great One

Maybe the strongest indicator of Brown's NHL potential is the fact that Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky — the all-time leader in points and arguably the game’s greatest player ever — contributed to the selection of Brown as their first offensive player taken.

“It’s another plus,” Brown said. “If you play for Phoenix, you get to play for the greatest player who ever played the game. So it makes it even more special to know that he had a role in saying, ‘Hey, we want Chris Brown on our team.’”

As flattered as Brown was to play for "The Great One," the Coyotes front office was thrilled to have a player they had been tracking for so long left on the board.

“He’s a tremendous young man,” Coyotes Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving said. “As we go through this process with (selecting) kids, we do psychological testing. It gives us some insight to the character of the players.

"Chris’s tests were off the charts.”

Brown began his career as a Coyote last month at rookie camp. He and about 20 other prospects became acquainted with one another on and off the ice, where they climbed a mountain one morning in the 100-degree Arizona heat. Brown soaked in his first experience as a professional hockey player and also took the opportunity to spend time with Michigan teammate Summers, with whom he roomed for the four days.

While Brown admitted the NHL game, even at the rookie level, had a faster pace than anything he had ever seen before, the camp focused primarily on providing the young players with information on fitness, nutrition and how to act professionally.

“Now the fun begins with pushing yourself even harder, developing your skills, being smarter and also becoming a better person,” Brown said. “That’s one thing I got out of the professional atmosphere — there’s obviously the hockey aspect but if you’re not a good person, (NHL coaches) aren’t really interested because they don’t want to have to deal with a problem.”

A Two-Way Player

It was clear to Krohl and Peake from the beginning that Brown brings a versatile style on the ice that few others can bring.

At 6’2, 190 lbs, he has the size and the skating ability to offer an offensive punch and an enforcer mentality for the Wolverines right away.

With Honeybaked, Brown displayed his offensive side, registering the most points of anyone in a lineup filled with NHL prospects. With the U.S. Development Team, he showed a little bit of both sides. He contributed goals on the power play and was a menace in the defensive zone, limiting opponents’ time and space while racking up penalties.

Treliving recognizes his offensive talent, but thinks the other component of his game will carry him to the NHL level.

“He’ll play in the hard areas, take pucks to the net, bump into the goaltender, hang around and have a conversation about it if somebody wants to do that as well,” Treliving said. “We’re not looking at a two-minute-a-night player. There’s some substance to his game.”

At this point, though, Brown’s potential at the highest level is exactly that — just potential. He plans on earning an undergraduate sports management degree in the next four years, meaning the NHL will have to wait.

And those four years could mean a great deal to Berenson, who's had to deal with early exits from Michigan for several years.

“You can’t turn down a Michigan education,” Brown said. "So for right now, it’s four years, and I’m going to do whatever I can to bring a national championship within those four years.”