By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – It was just three weeks and only five games, but Andy Brandt‘s short stint with the Gwinnett Gladiators at the end of last season was the right springboard.
Brandt came to the Gladiators last spring after completing his senior hockey season at the University of Wisconsin. He didn’t get many chances to play, but the experience served him well. He got a taste of what being a professional hockey player was like.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Brandt said. “I just was coming to see what it was about, feel it out and came into a great situation.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking for a whole lot of playing time.”
Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle was mired in a less-than-perfect situation, trying to get a few malcontents on the team to toe the line for the stretch run.
Pyle freely admits he didn’t get a chance to give the Wisconsin native a good look last year. But Brandt is a big kid who finishes his hits and has a good shot. It was enough to have Pyle offering Brandt a contract this summer.
“He just kind of fit everything that I like,” Pyle said. “I just told him, ‘I’m not sure what I’m getting from Chicago. I’m not sure where you will or won’t fit in.’
“And this is what I like the best about him, he just said, ‘Jeff, I’ve never been guaranteed anything anyway.'”
Brandt, fresh-faced with an engaging grin, is quintessentially Midwestern. He works hard and doesn’t make a big deal about it. He’s laid-back. He’s forthright and well-spoken. He looks you in the eye and offers a strong handshake. Brandt is genuine, salt-of-the-earth stock.
“He’s really grounded,” said Pyle, who grew up in Minnesota and went to college at Northern Michigan. “It’s the same way I feel about the Minnesota kids and Michigan kids. The Midwest is the Midwest. We’re all kind of farmers. We are. We’re just kind of laid-back, what-happens-happens people.”
Until he came to Gwinnett last March, Brandt had always lived in Wisconsin. He grew up in Wausau, a city of nearly 40,000 in the middle of the state. If the 24 year old is typically Midwestern, so was his start in hockey.
Brandt first played when he was 3 years old.
“I started early,” he said. “I was fortunate. I had an older brother that started playing at 5, so I started at 3, solely because of my older brother.”
They played on nearby ponds, often until little feet were frozen inside tiny skates.
“There were a lot of times as a little kid, coming off crying when you can’t feel your toes and your dad warming them up with his hands,” Brandt said. “The kind where they’re burning like crazy, you’re crying your eyes out and then when they warm up, all of a sudden you want to lace them back up and get back out there again.”
When Brandt turned 12, his family moved into a house with a back yard big enough to make their own pond.
“I want to thank my mom and dad for putting up with the high water bills in the winter time to create a rink,” Brandt said with a grin. “But it was awesome to have the neighbor kids come over. Even if the kids didn’t play hockey, they came over and skated around. It was just nice to get everyone together and have some fun.”
Brandt appreciated his parents’ sacrifices. It’s a word, much like “fortunate,” that comes up regularly when Brandt talks about his hockey career.
“I was in a fortunate position to come here and greatly appreciated the time that I spent here last year,” he said. “And greatly appreciate the fact that I’m back this year as well.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward has made the most of his chance. Brandt has played smart, aggressive, impressive hockey through eight games this season. He’s is defensively responsible and quick on his feet.
His play has been good enough that you wonder why he didn’t stand out more last year, even in limited action.
“I’ve got to think last year helped him, just the feel for the league, what we do, our systems,” Pyle said. “I think coming into this year, he knew everybody. It wasn’t like last year where he comes in and doesn’t know where he fits in. Plus we had a (bad) situation.
“We probably didn’t get to see the best of him last year. That’s my fault. But in the end, I figured he’s a hard-working kid and I liked a lot of the stuff he did. Then in camp this year, he just looked different.”
Brandt agreed that the stint last spring helped him when he returned to Gwinnett this fall.
“It was a good feeling-out process,” Brandt said. “I got a good feeling and that’s why I decided to come back. Being able to come back to an organization like this, especially with a coach like Jeff, it’s nice to just jump into it right away, to know what you’re doing and know what he expects of you and you just go from there.”
His offseason workouts in Madison, Wis., with other former Badgers also played a role in Brandt’s smooth transition to the pro game.
While finishing up his degree, Brandt had daily hour-long ice sessions with about 12 pros, including NHLers Brad Winchester, Tom Gilbert and Adam Burish.
It wasn’t just the workouts that Brandt benefited from.
“You hang out with them, you talk to them, especially about professional hockey, what it’s like to be on the road,” Brandt said. “So it helps you get a feel as well.”
Brandt has gotten a taste of the toll travel and limited rest can take already. The Gladiators, who have the best record in the ECHL, played six games in nine days from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4.
“You feel it a little bit,” Brandt said. “But for me right now, it’s eyes wide-open. I’m excited. I’m a rookie, I just want to come in and get established with a great hockey team and a great coaching staff.
“The way I look at it, I’m young and I’m coming to the rink excited every day, just ready to learn and be a part of something.”
That verve extends to his goal celebration. Brandt scored his first pro goal on Nov. 1 in Mississippi. He got his first one at home last Sunday. It was the game-winner against Charlotte and Brandt was obviously exhilarated.
“The guys were kind of joking around after my celebration with the goal here,” Brandt said with a wide smile. “But I get excited when I score – it doesn’t happen much.”
No, it doesn’t. Brandt’s two goals this season are one shy of his college high. His four points exceed all but his senior-season total of six at Wisconsin.
But points were never what Pyle was looking for most from Brandt.
“At the end of the year he pulled me into his office and said, ‘Andy, I know you don’t have flashy numbers. It’s not why we brought you in. We brought you in to be a defensive forward and play your role,'” Brandt said. “And I’m fine with that. I’ve never had a problem with that role. If you have guys that are willing to fill certain roles, you’re going to be a successful hockey team.
“If it means me being defensive and not putting up 50 points, I could care less. As long as we win, at the end of the day, I’m happy. If we can go further and win a championship, I’m twice as happy.”
In the new era of hockey that prizes offense above all else, it’s a novel concept, that of a defensive forward.
“Points aren’t everything,” Brandt said. “Do you want points as a player? Yeah, of course you want to get the accolades of having the points. But they’re not the most important thing.”
Which isn’t to say he wouldn’t like to light the lamp a few more times than he did for the Badgers – a collective five times.
“In college it didn’t happen a lot, which I was totally fine with,” Brandt said, still smiling. “I’m hoping to put it away a little more here. I worked hard at it this summer.”