By Tom Hanson
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – When Florida Everblades team president/general manager Craig Brush first proposed bringing a minor league hockey franchise to Southwest Florida, most people thought he had spent too much time in the sun.
One of his business partners, Tom Thewes, remembers having his immediate doubts.
“I was like, ‘Hockey in Florida?’ ,” says Thewes, rolling his eyes like he did back in 1997 when Brush first approached him and fellow partner Peter Karmanos about building an arena specifically for a East Coast Hockey League team in Estero.
“I thought it was a ridiculous idea.”
Everblades goaltender Jeff Maund had the same response after receiving a call from his agent about a team in Florida interested in his services.
“I was like, ‘There’s a hockey team in Fort Myers?,’ ” Maund says. “What was I going to do, play on slush? And I wondered, ‘Who was ever going to come to the games?’ ”
Last Monday night, 7,444 fans showed up to watch Maund and the Everblades capture the league’s Eastern Conference championship.
And for Brush, 55, his dream of turning a cow pasture into a sporting spectacular had become a realization.
Even though others had their reservations, Brush never waned from his original idea.
“We believed the people would come but there was a lot of skepticism,” says Brush, who moved to Naples in 1988. “The initial press conference was well- attended and people were rolling their eyes, but to a man most of them have come back and told me they were wrong.”
As the Kelly Cup Finals begins on Friday night at TECO Arena against the Idaho Steelheads, the fact the Florida franchise has never had a losing season and now has a chance to win a title in just its sixth year in existence is a compelling tale.
“For Craig to have the foresight to put a building in Estero, Florida and bring a franchise here and get people to buy in and fall in love is just an incredible story,” Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming says.
A hockey love affair
For Brush, he’s always had a love for hockey. But so did most Canadian kids growing up in Milton, Ontario.
Brush had dreamt of being the next Dave Keon, the scrappy Hall of Fame defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brush said he admired Keon — who was named the 1967 Conn Smythe Trophy winner — because he played big on both ends of the ice despite his small stature.
Brush went on to play three years at Cornell University and was part of the 1970 undefeated NCAA Championship team. But that was the extent of his playing career.
Now, Brush hopes to be part of another championship.
Much like Keon, he assumes several roles.
As one of the Everblades’ top executive officers, he’s involved in almost every aspect of the organization. From roster moves and trades to arena bookings and fan appreciation, Brush has a hand in most every decision.
And even though he bleeds Everblades’ blue and green, Brush believes that the green that goes in the bank still is the bottom line.
“On the surface this is a dream,” says Brush, who gets his business sense from working 20 years in the insurance industry.
“The hockey part never seems like work, but like any other business you have to pay attention to it. And you have to work at it. If you don’t problems occur.”
For Brush, no problem is too small or insignificant.
Like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, he personally answers all of his e-mails and takes care of fans’ complaints.
Wednesday afternoon, while he was trying to make the team’s flight arrangements to Idaho, Brush called a fan who wasn’t satisfied with her experience during Monday night’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brush has the same genuine caring touch with the Everblades players.
Maund, who spent 13 days on the Chicago Blackhawks roster, says Brush runs the Everblades organization as well — if not better — than most NHL franchises.
This season, Maund had to choose between playing for Wheeling, West Virginia — a Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate — or the Everblades.
He says his past experience with Brush made the decision for him and his wife an easy one.
“We just knew how great we were treated by Mr. Brush, so this was the only place we wanted to go because they made me feel so welcome before,” Maund says.
“He does everything humanly possible for the players, and that’s big.”
Building a winner
In his capacity as general manager, Brush has done everything possible to put the best team on the ice.
After the team was depleted by injuries midway through this season, he made some deals that raised a few eyebrows.
Brush traded rookie forward Carl Mallette and defenseman Kevin Holdridge to Roanoke for defenseman Tim O’Connell.
Even though Mallette was considered an up-and-coming offensive weapon, the team desperately needed defensive players.
“It’s always hard to trade a player like Mallette — he ended up being the Player of the Week two weeks later and he really helped Roanoke get into the playoffs,” Brush says. “He was disappointed to be leaving and we were disappointed to see him go but we needed a defenseman.”
Like many of Brush’s trades this season, it was a deal that has proved beneficial to the Everblades’ run to the Kelly Cup Finals. O’Connell leads the ECHL playoffs in plus/minus ratio with a plus-14.
“He’s pushed a lot of great buttons on trades this year,” says Everblades forward Tom Buckley, who’s known Brush since his junior days in Detroit. “Craig Brush, he wants to win as much as any guy in that dressing room.”
With six deals in a 13-day stretch, starting with the Mallette trade, Brush proved he’s dedicated — and not afraid — to do whatever it takes to put together a winning product.
“He makes some solid moves,” Fleming says. “When we had just eight skaters he went and found guys in the WHA2. He has given me as a coach the ability to ice a competitive team throughout the season.”
One more goal
Brush says he can’t yet rank the Everblades’ current playoff run as his most defining moment.
Mainly because they haven’t yet reached the final goal: winning the championship.
“We only have one focus right now, and that’s winning it all,” Brush says.
But he did say watching a packed TECO Arena celebrate last Monday night was personally gratifying.
He called it an historic moment for the building and the franchise that will last with him a lifetime.
Brush says he hasn’t had much time to enjoy the Everblades’ success or get much sleep these days.
“We are flying high right now and you want to enjoy it, but everything you do is a reflection on the organization,” Brush says.
“I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more when it’s all over.”
But whether the Everblades capture the Kelly Cup or not, Brush will be considered a visionary and a winner.
“One thing people in this town need to understand is Craig does what it takes to try to win,” Buckley says. “And he gives us every opportunity to win, starting with this facility, the coaching staff, getting fans in the stands, building this place from scratch, cow pasture, nothing. Everyone always says it starts at the top and it’s not hard to know where to look.”