By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – A crease of blood seeped through the bandage across Cam Brown’s left knuckles, silent testimony for an unflagging willingness to defend his teammates.
The swelling across his hand, earned in an increasingly rare fight, also reflects something else — age. The 35-year-old is playing in his 14th professional season and recovery doesn’t come as quickly as it did when Brown made a name for himself dropping the gloves.
Still, you would hardly know watching Brown this season that he’s at least a decade older than all but one of the Gwinnett Gladiators. Brown, who will set an ECHL record for games played Saturday in Augusta, is among the team leaders in goals scored and is having his best offensive season ever.
It comes at a time when he’s long past counting his points.
“My personal stats haven’t meant anything for years,” said Brown, who tied Rod Taylor’s ECHL record of 678 games played Thursday in Greenville. “The call-ups are a long ways in the past and the only thing that makes a difference now is winning games.
“If I’m helping win games by playing defense and not scoring and we’re still winning, that’s fine with me. If I’m scoring some goals that are helping us win, that’s fine too.”
It’s just like him. Brown isn’t one to laud his own accomplishments. In fact, his efforts have turned increasingly toward helping other players advance themselves.
“He’s had obviously an amazing career,” said Jack Capuano, the general manager of the Pee Dee Pride and an old teammate of Brown’s. “To be able to do what Cam has done, you have to be mentally and physically strong. On top of that, he’s a good person and a great leader. His toughness, his leadership, his ability to score some big goals — when you think of Cam Brown you think of leadership.
“He should be proud of (his ECHL record). Cam’s not going to make a big deal of it, but it’s a great accomplishment.”
When you ask him about things that stand out after 15 years in the professional ranks, Brown doesn’t bring up his brief stay in the NHL or any personal moments of glory. He mentions names, but they are not names that the casual hockey fan would recognize. And he mentions them because he hopes he helped them be successful.
“Shane Hnidy was a kid that started his pro career with us in Baton Rouge,” said Brown, who that year was in his first of six seasons playing for the King Fish. “Actually he didn’t have a job at the time when he got cut from Chicago and didn’t know where he was going.”
“I didn’t have a good (Blackhawks training) camp and I was contemplating quitting and just going to university,” Hnidy said. “But he called me up and said why don’t you come down to Baton Rouge and play. He and Pierre McGuire, who was the coach, they gave me my confidence back. I was there for a month and a half, went to Saint John and started on the right path.”
Hnidy has spent the last five seasons in the NHL, most recently for the Nashville Predators. With the lockout stretching on, Hnidy joined the Florida Everblades’ roster and Brown caught up with Hnidy in December when Florida visited Gwinnett.
“Reed Low’s another guy who played with us his first year in pro and went on to play for the St. Louis Blues,” Brown said. “Dave Van Drunen played with me in Baton Rouge. He’s played a few games with Ottawa. And last year Kevin Doell, to have a Rookie of the Year season with us and getting a Thrashers contract out of the deal …
“It’s good to see some of these guys getting up there.”
That hasn’t always been the focus.
Playing major juniors for the Brandon Wheat Kings in his native Saskatchewan, Brown dreamed of the NHL.
The dream came true in his first professional season — if only for a short time.
Brown played one game for the Vancouver Canucks in the 1990-91 season. It was an 8-0 blowout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“But because of the lopsided score, I was able to get plenty of ice time,” Brown said. “The coach just kind of opened the doors and said, ‘Let’s see what you can do as a young guy.’
“I was able to stay even in the game. I didn’t get scored on, so that was a good thing. I got my chance to get into a fight with one of the guys that was a known heavyweight in the league at the time in Mike Peluso.”
Brown spent the next four seasons trying to get back to that level.
“(My second year) I kind of struggled in the IHL for ice time and getting healthy scratches that had never happened to me the first season,” Brown said. “So at that point I asked to go down to the East Coast to play for a while and see if I could get the love of the game back.”
Brown played his first ECHL game for the Columbus (Ohio) Chill during the 1991-92 season.
After his third and final contracted year with Vancouver, Brown went overseas and played a season in the Czech league.
“That was just kind of a life-changing appreciation thing,” Brown said. “The game was fun again and there was no pressure to be out there fighting other team’s heavyweights. I could just concentrate on playing the game.”
He came back to the U.S. and spent the 1994-95 campaign mostly with Erie of the ECHL, but also with AHL Adirondack.
“I spent that spring in the playoffs with the Adirondack team and they offered me a contract,” Brown said. “But it was pretty obvious I was going to be a 10th forward fighter.
“I just decided at that point it wasn’t fun at that level to do that. I accepted an offer to be player/assistant coach the following season back in Erie, working on my game and my coaching career.”
From that point, through some 550 ECHL games, Brown has focused himself on working with young players and learning from whichever coach was in charge.
Back when he was in Brandon, Brown and his friend Jeff Odgers, talked about playing until they were 35. Odgers called it a career in 2003 after 12 seasons in the NHL, the last three for Atlanta.
But Brown, just two weeks younger than Odgers isn’t done yet. After retiring in 2002 and coaching Baton Rouge the following season, Brown accepted an offer from Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle to lace up the skates again last year. He’s never been happier.
“Last year and so far this year, it’s been the best experience of those 15 years as far as winning games and having fun every day,” Brown said. “It’s been more rewarding here in the last year and a half that it ever was before that.”
Now if he could just get his teammates to play some old-school tunes in the locker room.“The only thing that grumps me out a little bit is the music these kids play today,” Brown said. “It’s god-awful.
“But that’s about the only complaint I have about the game right now.”
Maybe someone could dig out the AC/DC for his 679th game today. If not, Brown’s always been willing to take a little punishment for the good of the team.
“Between rap and techno, it’s about all I can handle to get dressed in that locker room,” Brown said. “But whatever gets the guys going.”
There’s one thing, though, that Brown would still like to accomplish. In all his years in the ECHL, he has yet to win a championship. The Gladiators made a great run at it last season, ousting Mississippi and Louisiana to reach the conference finals. Gwinnett fell to eventual champ Idaho there, but it was more than enough to ensure Brown’s return for another campaign.
“I have no regrets in my career by any means,” Brown said. “Being down in the East Coast is where I’ve made my living, and met my wife. I made some great friends and realized my desire to be a professional hockey coach if the opportunity arises when I’m done playing.”
That day might be further off than he thought 15 years ago.