By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
He knows it’s going to be tough in September, but Cam Brown is certain he made the right decision.
It’s been an annual question for the Gwinnett Gladiators’ captain since he joined the team for the inaugural 2003-04 season: Does he have another season left in him?
For two years it was an emphatic yes. This year, Brown knew the answer before the season was even over.
He didn’t make a big deal of it, didn’t even really make it public until the final game was done, but Brown wasn’t coming back. The only captain in Gladiators history (all three years of it) was retiring – for the second time.
“I came here the first year for one last kick at the can and had such a good time I had to try it again,” said the 37-year-old father of two. “Then I went into last year (2004-05) thinking it was going to be my last year.”
But a disappointing loss to Charlotte in the second round of the playoffs changed Brown’s mind.
Last summer head coach Jeff Pyle and general manager Steve Chapman asked the same question every one else did: Would Brown be in for one more year?
Brown didn’t hesitate. He wanted a championship before he called it a career, but he did tell his wife, Brigette, and some close friends that 2005-06 was going to be it.
What ensued was basically a dream season of 50 wins and a conference title that earned the uber-talented Gladiators a spot in the ECHL finals. The dream ended abruptly though with the Alaska Aces winning the first three games of the championship series and claiming the Kelly Cup with a Game 5 victory on Gwinnett ice.
It was Brown’s ECHL record 789th game in the league. The fact that he left without ever having won a title in all those years did not go unnoticed on this tightly knit young team.
Lane Manson, a 22-year-old defenseman on NHL contract with the Atlanta Thrashers, sat next to Brown for the last two seasons and struggled to deal with the final result.
“You get sent down to the (ECHL), no one wants to be here, everyone’s got a reason why they’re here. You get sent down but the silver lining was the chance to go all the way and win it for Brownie.
Coming so close, it breaks your heart seeing a guy playing for so long and such a good guy, great family man, great role model,” Manson said, tearing up, after the fateful Game 5.
“He’s really helped me out, especially this year. He’s like a big brother or dad, down here anyways. I’m upset for me, but I’m more upset for him.”
It was still the best year, the best team Brown said, of his 15-year playing career that included a trip to the NHL.
“Yeah, I could have convinced myself and Brigette to play another year,” Brown said. “Jeff and Chappy asked. But I just couldn’t see surpassing what we did this year.
“If you could guarantee winning the cup, it’s a no-brainer. But there are no guarantees. I wanted to leave on my own terms.”
Which makes it different from Brown’s first retirement.
In 2002, Brown was a player-assistant with the Baton Rouge Kingfish. The franchise was struggling and asked Brown, as their most recognized and beloved player, to take over as head coach.
Brown bowed to their wishes and coached the 2002-03 season. It wasn’t a spectacular year and in some ways figured into his decision to return to the ice when Pyle asked him to join the former Mobile franchise in its relocation to Gwinnett.
“I left playing (the first time) for a number of reasons, chiefly the owners asked me to coach,” Brown said. “We were losing money hand over fist … and we started the season behind the eight ball. That doesn’t do anybody any good.
“I was fortunate to get back in the game with Gwinnett.”
This retirement was different in other ways, too.
His last season playing for Baton Rouge, the Kingfish were out of the playoff picture with 20 games left and it was already known that Brown was retiring. It hadn’t been announced that Brown was going to be the new coach, but everyone was aware the final home game of the regular season would be his last on skates.
The Kingfish retired his number and raised a banner to the rafters to honor their longtime leader.
“It was a special night,” Brown said. “I’ll always remember having my number retired. It was a pretty big deal.
“It was all pretty surreal for someone who tries to go about his business as quietly as possible.”
In sharp contrast was Brown’s exit in Gwinnett.
By not making it public knowledge, he avoided such pomp and circumstance as the Gladiators made their run to the finals.
“After that last game I said a couple words to the guys had some tears,” Brown said. “It was more of a family affair. It wasn’t in front of the while building.”
Brown didn’t escape entirely without ceremony, however.
The Arena at Gwinnett Center’s general manager, Preston Williams, put on a banquet to honor the Gladiators success a week after the season ended earlier this month. The team’s supporters were on hand and the few players still in town were invited to attend.
Brown said Pyle called him and asked if he was going to be there. Brown said he might, but it depended on if Brigette was working or not.
“For some reason Brigette’s schedule was cleared and we had a sitter, too,” Brown said. “A friend of hers showed up to watch the kids.”
Brown said he should have been suspicious then.
Instead he was caught unaware when the Gladiators paid tribute to their captain after dinner was served.
A video was shown and several members of the front office spoke about Brown’s career. Brown wasn’t the only one in the room wiping away tears by the time the speeches ended. But he was the only one that had to get up on the dais and make a speech of his own afterward.
Brown had to pause a couple times to gather himself during the emotional moments in front of a rather large crowd at the convention center.
“As much as it was embarrassing to go through that performance, it’s also liberating,” Brown said. “Most men in the world can count how many times they’ve cried on one hand.
“I wish it had been a smaller crowd, but it was still very nice on their part. The mementos we went home with meant a lot.”
The Gladiators had several commemorative plaques made. Chapman also announced that rather than retiring Brown’s No. 44, they were going to put an exact replica of his locker, as it had been for the last three years with gear and sweater hanging, in a glass case on the arena concourse.
“The first (retirement) wasn’t that big of a life-changing event,” Brown said. “I was staying with the organization and had a job the next week. My father had passed away in February and it wasn’t going to be the same without him.
“This one is 100 percent mine and my wife’s decision. The only one who is going to be devastated by this is my almost 4-year-old son who can’t fathom not going to the rink five days a week with me.”
But Logan, his son who was a fixture on the ice after practices at the arena this season, has enjoyed going to houses Brown is helping to build in his new career.
Brown picked up where he left off last summer, working for Pinecrest Custom Homes as a superintendent.
The days are long, from sunup to sundown usually, but the schedule can be flexible and the weekends are not filled with 10-hour bus rides to Florida that force him to miss birthday parties or his daughter Rhyan’s softball games.
“It’s time to turn the page and move on,” Brown said. “I’m 100 percent convinced it’s the right time.”
The Saskatchewan native hasn’t ruled out going back to coaching if the right situation came up, but those options will be limited to this area. He’s had offers in other leagues, but just isn’t interested in picking up and moving again.
“From halfway through the first year, we fell in love with the area here,” Brown said. “The opportunity to raise our kids the way we wanted to overshadowed every other career opportunity for me.
“My first priority in life from now on is to be a husband and father. If something comes down the road, it’s definitely something I think I could get back into. But I’m not going to pine at home.”
After a lifetime of playing, it’ll be hard in September when NHL training camp gets going.
“I’ll be missing it no question,” Brown said.
But you know what he won’t be missing? Birthday parties. Rhyan turns 6 and Logan 4 in September.