EDITOR’S NOTE – Henry Brabham was a founding member of the ECHL and the first owner of the Erie Panthers. A former mayor and businessman who was a major force in professional hockey in Virginia for more than 15 years, Brabham worked tirelessly to establish the ECHL during its early years. Each season the ECHL regular-season point champion is awarded the Brabham Cup. In 2003-04, San Diego became only the second first-year team in history to win the Brabham Cup and set an ECHL record for a first-year team with 49 wins.
By Randy King
The Roanoke Times
ROANOKE, Va. – It’s a rare occurrence when Henry Brabham puts his soft emotional side on public display.
Well, the tough, crusty codger from Vinton simply couldn’t help himself on the night of June 7.
Hours after being honored with a 50-year pin commemorating his half-century of service with Vinton Masonic Lodge 204, Brabham saw his emotions climb to a greater zenith once he got home and turned on his television set.
Parked on the edge of his easy chair, 75-year-old Brabham was whipped into a frenzy of euphoria as coach John Tortorella and the Tampa Bay Lightning scored a 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Calgary Flames to capture the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
“I tell you … I was just really overwhelmed by that,” said Brabham, who gave Tortorella his first head-coaching job in 1986.
“The biggest prize in all of hockey … you’re talking about a big deal.”
Needing a coach for his Atlantic Coast Hockey League franchise 18 years ago, Brabham had the foresight and wisdom to hire Tortorella as boss of his Virginia Lancers. Brabham’s decision to hire one of his ex-players who often was intensely moody and downright surly was questioned by some.
There are no more questions now. In three seasons in Tampa Bay, Tortorella has transformed the Lightning from a laughingstock into a Stanley Cup champion.
Tortorella, 45, showed Monday night he hasn’t forgotten where he began his climb to pro hockey’s pinnacle. Not only was Brabham’s name mentioned by the announcing crew during the second intermission of ABC’s national telecast, Tortorella dropped Brabham’s name again in a postgame interview.
“At the end of the second period, the announcers said that Torty had said I had got him started in coaching,” Brabham said. “Then, after the game, Torty talked about me again, saying how he came to me after he had blown his knee out as a player. He said he said to me, ‘Well, I guess I can’t play any more hockey,’ and that I said, ‘What the hell, you can coach.’
“It just made me feel so good that he said that.”
Brabham, an oil magnate and self-made millionaire who single-handedly kept minor-league hockey on ice in the Roanoke Valley during the 1980s, also was elated to hear that Tortorella was the first American-born coach to lead a team to the Cup since 1991.
“You know who won it 1991?” Brabham asked. “My other boy … Mike Keenan with Philadelphia. I was a part-owner of the team when he played here in the mid-1970s [in Salem].”
Tortorella’s story, though, is much closer to Brabham’s heart.
“John reminds me of me,” said Brabham, always known for his feisty and fiery attitude. “I was so tickled the one game in which he went in the locker room after the second period [Game 5, a 3-2 Calgary win] and kicked the damned trash cans over … like he used to do down here.
“They said [on TV] that he just raised pure hell with all of ’em. And I’m sitting here saying, ‘That’s my boy!'”