CALGARY – T.J. Brodie and Chris Breen were defensive partners with the Abbotsford Heat last season, and they found themselves linked once again as Calgary Flames training camp opened on Saturday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The erstwhile Heat duo have risen to the top of the list of defensive prospects in the Flames organization, and both are intent on making their case this week to stick with the NHL club.
In essence, they’re at the same spot in their hockey careers. But how they got here could hardly be more different.
Brodie and Breen, as it happens, go way back – they spent the better part of three seasons playing junior hockey together with the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit.
From that point, their paths diverge.
Brodie’s road to the cusp of NHL employment has been fairly straightforward. The speedy puck-mover from Chatham, Ont. was picked by the Flames in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, and he validated that selection by racking up big numbers with the OHL’s Spirit and Barrie Colts.
Last fall, Brodie cemented his status as a big-time prospect with a stellar preseason performance, tying Jarome Iginla for the Flames’ goal-scoring lead with four tallies in five exhibition games. He surprised many by making the opening-night roster, though his stint in Calgary lasted just three games before he was reassigned to Abbotsford.
Brodie had some early growing pains with the Heat – head coach Jim Playfair was in his grill on a frequent basis about tightening up defensive-zone play. But the youngster made strides in that area, and he was the Heat’s representative at the AHL all-star game.
He finished the year second on the Heat scoring list with 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) in 68 games – numbers which are even more impressive considering Abbotsford finished dead last in AHL scoring last season.
At the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton last week, Brodie struggled at times – a couple of defensive hiccups led directly to opposition goals. But while it’s taken him some time to get back into the swing of things, he’s got some big goals for main camp.
“There’s a little bit more pressure after last year,” the 21-year-old noted. “But I expect a lot. I expect to have a better camp than I did last year.
“My legs are feeling good, and I’ve got to keep moving them to create space. The more space I have, the more time I have to think and find plays. And if I have nothing, I just need to go high off the glass, make the simple play.”
In comparison to Brodie, Breen’s circuitous route to top prospect status has been downright dizzying.
The 6’7″, 225-pound behemoth was a classic late bloomer. The Uxbridge, Ont. native was never picked in the NHL entry draft, and as his junior career was winding down, he was all set to attend university and begin the next phase of life.
“I was going to go to either Dalhousie or UPEI,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I didn’t know for sure what I was going to take – something in the sciences, probably.”
But the Flames came calling in the spring of 2010, and inked Breen to an AHL contract. He had a terrific rookie campaign with the Heat last season, establishing himself as a reliable shutdown defender.
Breen’s on-ice maturation mirrored what was happening in his life away from the rink. In November, his girlfriend Jamie-Lee Petkovich gave birth to a daughter, Skarlett Rose. Fatherhood, Breen says, has been “awesome,” and has forced him to grow up in a hurry.
“I think my game actually got better after I brought my two girls out (to Abbotsford) with me in February,” said Breen, 22. “It kind of grew me up and really made me focus on what I had to do to be a good dad.
“I just blocked out all the things I didn’t really need to do in my life. I tried to sleep better and eat better, so I’d be ready to go when I went to the rink every day.”
Breen was relatively anonymous when he arrived in Calgary for training camp last fall – he didn’t get into a single preseason game before being handed a plane ticket to Abbotsford. This time around, he figures to get a serious look with the big club. Not bad for a guy who thought his hockey career was all but done just over a year ago.
“It’s kind of been a dream, actually,” he marveled. “A lot had to do with the coaching I got last year and the opportunity I had. (Matt) Pelech got hurt, and I ended up getting into some games. Then I just kept progressing from there, soaking up as much as I could and working as hard as possible.”
Brodie said he’s enjoyed watching his former junior hockey buddy’s rapid progress.
“He keeps improving all the time,” said Brodie, who was paired with Breen during the latter stages of last season. “He makes the other guy’s job easier on the ice, and that’s a big thing.
“Especially the type of game I play – I like to jump into the rush and stuff, and just knowing he’s going to be back there makes it that much easier when the time is right.”
Breen also holds a great deal of admiration for Brodie’s game.
“He’s awesome with the puck, so it’s not tough playing with him, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re kind of opposites, but opposites attract, I guess. He does his thing, and I just try not to get scored on.”