During a recent road trip to Oklahoma City, Rockford IceHogs veteran winger Wade Brookbank was reminiscing about his career. Oklahoma City was an appropriate spot to be doing so for the 15th year pro.
For one, Brookbank never thought his hockey playing career would last very long, let alone 15 years. Secondly, Oklahoma City was home to his second stop on his professional hockey journey and at the time of the conversation, the IceHogs and Barons featured four players, including Brookbank, who were teammates on the 2001 Orlando Solar Bears (IHL) Turner Cup Championship team.
"Most of those old teammates are coaches now," laughed Brookbank. "Darcy Hordichuck and Bret Clark are still playing here in OKC. Other than that, I really don't run into many other of those guys on the ice.
"A couple might be in the NHL still, but most have moved on. It is funny how many old teammates used to talk about how their old teammates are coaching here and there and hearing them talking about how they used to play with them back in the day and that's what's happening with me now."
Clark has since found his way back into the NHL with the Minnesota Wild and to Brookbank's point, the fourth player from that Solar Bears squad is IceHogs' assistant coach Ben Simon.
Ice time isn't as frequent as it used to be for the Lanigan, Saskatchewan native, but he has a new-found enjoyment of the game.
"As you get older, you don't take this job for granted as much as you would have in the past," said Brookbank. "I definitely have enjoyed hanging around the rink and dressing room more. At the end of the day now, I have a lovely family to go home to now. It's completely different and it's all about family away from the rink and it has made me help appreciate everything around the rink even more."
The 6-4 forward broke into pro hockey at the tail end of the 1997-98 season with the West Coast Hockey League's (WCHL) Anchorage Aces. Brookbank wasn't really sure what the WCHL was or how long he'd play hockey for a pay check.
At first thought, it was a chance to be a pro hockey player for a couple of years before enrolling at the University of Saskatchewan. After spending the 1998-99 season in Anchorage, Brookbank signed on in the Central Hockey League with the Oklahoma City Blazers.
In his second year with the Blazers in 2000-01, Brookbank got his first taste of AAA hockey in Orlando. The winger earned a rare double championship in his third full pro campaign as the Blazers claimed the CHL's President's Cup and a week later Brookbank, was with Orlando when they cinched the IHL's Turner Cup.
"That's when I first started getting serious about playing pro hockey," said Brookbank. "Then the third offseason I got offered an NHL deal with Ottawa and the minute I got offered an NHL contract is when I realized this could turn into something. Before that, I was just using this as a winter job and then go back in the summer time and work a summer job. But once you start getting phone calls from NHL teams that's when things get serious in a hurry."
In a sport where careers are frequently ended early because of injury or because the business side gets the best of a player, longevity isn't something that should be taken lightly in professional hockey.
You don't have to be around for 15 seasons like Brookbank to see some wacky things or experience odd situations. One look at Brookbank's player bio, the 2003-04 season sticks out as one that wasn't normal.
Young players are usually oblivious to the business side of the game and Brookbank was no different. It appeared that Brookbank was going to get his first opportunity to play in the NHL with Ottawa in 2003-04 until something happened to him that he didn't even know could happen.
"I didn't even know about waivers until I was leaving the rink at Ottawa training camp and one of the older guys came up to me and said that there was a pretty good chance that I was going to be getting picked up on waivers," explained Brookbank. "I said to explain the waivers because I didn't know what it was.
"He explained it and I went home, had lunch and sure enough I got a call an hour later from the GM in Ottawa telling me that I got picked up by Nashville. I had a flight at 5 p.m. and I had to pack up quickly and get to Nashville for an exhibition game that next day."
It didn't take long for that dose of reality to sink in before Brookbank was on the move again. When 2003-04 was all said and done, Brookbank had played in 43 games between five teams. That's a lot of handshakes and introduction between new teammates.
"Every time the phone rang and I didn't recognize the number, it was like I was walking on egg shells," joked Brookbank. "To this day I don't like to answer numbers that I don't know who it is. I have a phobia or something."
With all the twists and turns during a 15 year career, there are plenty of highlights. Brookbank made his NHL debut during that crazy 2003-04 season with Nashville and scored his first NHL goal Jan. 31, 2004 with Vancouver.
During his NHL career, Brookbank played in 127 games, notched 6g-3a-9pts with 345 PIMs, including 43 fighting majors with Nashville, Vancouver, Boston and Carolina.
Off Into The Sunset?
Brookbank knows that the his playing career is winding down, but still has plans to play as long as possible. He does realize that the time will come when it's time to hang up the skates, but no decision has been made for beyond 2012-13.
The tough winger has never been placed in a skill role during his 15-year playing career, but his role has changed over the past few seasons.
Said Brookbank, "I'm in the position that if there is a prospect that is ready to play ahead of me, they are going to play, it's as simple as that. I'm not anybody's prospect anymore.
"I'm kind of here to help these young guys along anyway I can on and off the ice, wait my turn when it's my time to play. Show these guys that just because I'm not playing, I can still contribute somehow. I try to bring a positive influence to the team any way possible."
Brookbank knows his role and job on the IceHogs, but it doesn't make it any easier for him as he still wants to be on the ice playing. Not playing is the hardest part for any hockey player.
Being around the game has been a good antidote for the veteran though. He knows that once his playing career is over, there is no replacing the camaraderie that comes with being on a team and in the locker room.
"That's definitely going to be the hardest part," said Brookbank. "You're never going to be able to hang out in a real locker room like that and be one of the guys. I might be able to go back and hang out with somebody that I know or be in the dressing room, but I will never be one of the guys like right now when we are all together."
As for life after his playing career, it has crossed Brookbank's mind and he's actually been there briefly. He didn't officially retire following the 2010-11 campaign, but didn't begin the season on the ice either. Brookbank got a taste of scouting in the first half of 2011-12 for Vancouver before signing on in Rockford in January 2012.
After 15 seasons in pro hockey as a player, Brookbank wants to remain in the game, hoping he can continue from the coaching side.
"I just want to be around the game as long as possible and try to get set up with something in hockey when my hockey career is done," said Brookbank." Being around a hockey team, around coaches, you get to know so many people and get to see so many different ways to coach teams and systems and I just want to soak it all in so that at the end of my career I can be of some use to somebody.
"Here I am, 35 and getting ready to call it quits...or maybe not, you never know!"