By Len Bardsley
© 2005 The Times of Trenton
ESTERO, Fla. – Brad Church knows a thing or two about expectations.
As a 1995 NHL first-round draft pick, the forward out of Dauphin, Manitoba, made his NHL debut as a 21-year-old.
He played two games for the Washington Capitals and has not been back since.
As a promising junior player, Church pushed far into the Memorial Cup playoffs with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League, playing 33 postseason games in a two-year span.
He probably figured there would be plenty more to come once he turned pro, but it took eight years of professional hockey to reach that total.
That is why now, as a 28-year-old veteran, Church is savoring everything about the Florida Everblades’ run to the Kelly Cup Finals.
It is Church’s first trip to any finals as a pro hockey player despite having a stellar career which includes ECHL stints with the Hampton Roads Admirals, the Richmond Renegades and Reading Royals.
Church also has played 318 games in the American Hockey League, the majority with the Portland Pirates.
The fact that Church came within a game of reaching the finals last season when he was with a Royals team that eventually fell to the Everblades in five games in the Northern Conference Finals, makes this trip that much sweeter.
“To finally be there,” said Church, “in my ninth season, I had never been in the final. I am excited. I was on cloud nine for a few days, but we are grounded now.”
It was part of the experience of last season’s Northern Conference Finals that drew Church to Florida.
“I was a free agent and I had been talking to Reading and talking to Florida,” said Church. “I got a good offer from Florida, and after what I witnessed last year, the atmosphere in the building, the city, it is a great place to play. It is one of the premiere franchises in the league. Everything has been great.”
It was a big move for Church considering he was transplanting a family, which includes two boys, 4-year-old Luke and 2-year-old Dean, and his only other playing experience in the deep south had been a five-game stint with the New Orleans Brass.
“I didn’t want to put my family in a situation that would be uncomfortable,” said Church. “It was pretty easy to make a decision. (Luke) has been involved in the youth hockey programs and there are a lot of activities.”
The major difference between playing for the Everblades and the Royals or Renegades is the road trips. Church figures he spent 70 nights in a hotel this season, with the Everblades’ closest rival being 600 miles away, compared to an average of 14 nights in a hotel with Reading or Richmond.
Church and his family have adjusted to the schedule, making the most of the home time. It has all been worth it for Church.
“This has been unbelievable,” said Church. “Last year we had a good run, but when you get that close to the final it leaves an empty feeling. You want to get there, especially after nine years. After you have played six or seven, you start to think it is not going to happen. I am ecstatic and it is rubbing off on the younger guys.”
Church has long since let go of the pressure and expectations that go with being a first-round draft pick, but cherishes his short time in the NHL.
“The first-round draft pick title went away a few years ago,” said Church. “I just love playing the game and being around the guys at the rink, and I am real hungry for a championship.”
Church now uses his brief experience in the NHL and his long journey to the Kelly Cup Finals as a lesson to younger players on the Everblades.
“It was awesome,” said Church of his first NHL game. “My best memory was playing against the Islanders at the MCI Center and Tommy Salo stopped me on a breakaway. Just being there and getting there was a great feeling. I wish it could have lasted longer.
“The young guys ask during the season what it was like to get there. My message to these guys is enjoy this time. It took me nine years to get here. I don’t want them to regret it. Don’t just think it is going to happen again because you are young. Time passes. It sneaks up on you.”