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The Straight Edge: When pro hockey is no longer the dream

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Pro hockey players spend all of their teen years and usually their early 20s chasing a dream; to get paid to play the sport they love.

But what happens when that dream changes? To be sure, not everyone can make it to the NHL and even ‘sure-things’ have stumbled in the past. But for Vancouver Canucks draft pick Chad Brownlee, the end of his hockey career was simply the closing of one door leading to the opening of another.

Brownlee, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound blueliner, was born and raised in British Columbia, so when the Canucks called his name at the 2003 draft (190th overall), it was a dream come true for the physical, stay-at-home defenseman.

“It was definitely a feather in the cap to be drafted by a team you’ve been following since you were six years old,” Brownlee said.

Drafted out of the Jr. A Vernon Vipers program (BCHL), Brownlee then went on to play for the NCAA’s Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks, where he would suit up for all four seasons and eventually wear the captain’s ‘C.’ Living and playing in Mankato was perfect for the youngster.

“It was a great experience,” Brownlee said. “I know more people in that little town than I do in all of Canada.”

His teammates with the Mavs included future NHLers Steve Wagner (St. Louis) and Jon Kalinski (Philadelphia) and he would often battle with former Vernon teammate and THN blogger Justin Bourne, who played for Alaska-Anchorage and remains a good friend to this day.

Brownlee made his pro debut with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads in 2007-08, but despite loving the city of Boise and his teammates, the spark that once drove his passion for the game just wasn’t there anymore. Injuries had been a factor throughout his career – both shoulders had been operated on – but something else was tugging at him.

“I was counting down the minutes of a game,” he said. “It’s the third period and I just wanted the game to be done.”

And this wasn’t an isolated incident. It made Brownlee think, if he’s not happy playing hockey now, should it really be his life for the near future and possibly years to come?

“I’ll forever love the game, but I wasn’t enjoying the game,” Brownlee said.

So the young man, after one pro season, made a change. He turned to his other love – music. Brownlee was already somewhat of an accomplished songwriter, having written an ode to a young, terminally ill boy named Anthony Ford while at MSU-Mankato. The Anthony Ford Foundation had been set up to help underprivileged kids play hockey in remembrance of the nine-year-old, who succumbed to leukemia. Brownlee’s track “The Hero I See,” raised money for the cause.

Now, music is at the forefront of Brownlee’s life completely. He is currently working on a six-song EP and playing acoustic shows in Kitsilano, B.C., as he gets his second career going. Drawing inspiration from a variety of musicians – Garth Brooks, Jack Johnson (the other one), Dirks Bentley – Brownlee projects a soulful country vibe in his songs.

He knows the road will be hard. He is just starting out in an industry that crushes dreams on a daily basis after already getting further than most in a similar field. But for the aspiring musician from British Columbia, the switch to music from hockey was the right decision to make.

“As much as it was difficult, it was obvious,” Brownlee said. “I’m so happy with music.”

And in the end, it’s hard to argue against someone following their heart and doing what they love.

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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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