By Dan Saevig
Toledo Blade Sports Writer
TOLEDO, Ohio – He was supposed to be in Miami tonight, part of the featured act in the 19,250-seat, state-of-the-art Office Depot Center while the smash-hit group known as Shaq and Company takes a break from its latest NBA tour.
Instead, Curtis Brown will be on display in the 5,361-seat museum known as the Toledo Sports Arena, where the company will yell, “Hit somebody,” before the national anthem is finished.
After enjoying the evening warmth and a meeting with the Florida Panthers, he would then jet off to Boston with his Chicago Blackhawks’ teammates, where he would shadow the Bruins’ Joe Thornton during a Saturday matinee.
Rather, the only shadows Brown will follow come from the warm street lights illuminating the cold shell of the San Diego Gulls’ bus as it makes its way to Wheeling for a game Friday, then off to Johnstown on Saturday, before making a return trip to Wheeling on Sunday.
In the world of pro hockey, the NHL is “the apple.” One step down is the American Hockey League, known as “the crabapple.” Then there’s the ECHL, home of the Toledo Storm and some of the finest applesauce in North America.
After 10 seasons of munching on MacIntosh, Brown is eating his fruit with a spoon.
Hungry for hockey, and with no end in sight to the labor troubles that threaten to wipe out an entire NHL season, the locked-out veteran of 554 major league games signed with the minor league Gulls on Nov. 16 for $500 a week.
He will be in uniform when San Diego meets the Storm at One Main Street tonight at 7 p.m.
“You know what’s been cool?” Brown said. “Really getting back to the roots of the game. There’s no frills.”
Certainly not at the Sports Arena, where fans form lines for Budweiser that rival the postgame logjam for working shower heads in the visitors dressing room.
“It’s not about the money,” said Brown, 28. “It’s about playing the game.”
Scheduled to make $1.55 million this year after signing a four-year contract with Chicago in July that pays a reported $6.8 million, the father of two young boys turned down the chance to play in Europe during the lockout to – for all intents and purposes – pay to play for a team based close to his wife’s family in Southern California.
ECHL rules require locked-out NHL players to pay their own disability and career-ending insurance, an expense that dwarfs the weekly paycheck.
“I think this has helped me to really get back and have a lot of fun doing what we do,” said Brown, who has totaled 111 goals, 145 assists and a plus/minus mark of plus-77 during an NHL career spent playing for Buffalo and San Jose. “Guys are in the ECHL playing the game because they love playing the game, not for the money.
“On one side, I think the guys have learned a little bit from me, but I think I’ve learned more from them; youthful guys with a lot of energy and excitement playing the game the way it should be played.
“I didn’t know how good the league was going to be. It’s better than people think it is. It’s a lot better than people think it is.”
In 28 games with the Gulls, Brown – a center -has six goals and 17 assists.
“The first day he got here, he bought everybody dinner,” said San Diego coach Martin St. Amour. “That was one of our main concerns; having an NHL guy come down, you never know what to expect. We got lucky; he’s a great guy.”
It’s apparently going to take more than great luck to end the labor stalemate that has sent Brown to the minors for the first time since 1997. NHL owners want a hard salary cap, while the players union – which offered a 24 percent salary rollback and a luxury tax system – has said it will never agree to wear a financial hardhat.
“When we offered that [concession], a lot of different guys in the union looked at that and said, ‘Man, maybe we offered too much,'” Brown said. “What we did was a huge compromise on our side. When it didn’t happen, maybe it just goes to show, they really don’t want to get a deal done at this time.
“I think there is a deal to be made if both parties are looking to have a fair deal. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen and heard and know, it’s more the owners trying to implement a system. In negotiations, that never works.
“If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t bet,” Brown said, that a settlement will be reached in time to save the 2004-05 season. “For the game, for the fans, for everyone involved, I’m an optimist at heart and would really like to see things get done.
“But it’s got to be a fair deal. I don’t know if that’s where we’re at right now.”
As a result, Brown said he’s prepared to finish the season in the ECHL, a place where players get locked out only when someone forgets to bring a key to the rink.