By Dan Robson in Toronto
By Dan Robson in Toronto
Connor Brown doesn't draw the spotlight like fellow rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The winger—a crucial part of the Maple Leafs young core—has been overlooked and underrated his whole hockey career. It's never bugged him. After all, he's been living the dream since he first strapped on skates.

With the final pick in his NHL fantasy draft this season, Jeff Brown took a chance on a wild card—albeit a familiar one. His younger brother had never been one to be taken off the board early, but every time he’d been overlooked in the past, Connor Brown had proved his value. There was no certainty he’d last long with the Toronto Maple Leafs after he made the squad out of training camp, but no one knew better than Jeff what Brown was capable of—just how hard he’d worked to get a shot at the OHL, to get drafted to the NHL, and to rise through two seasons in the minors to finally earn his chance to play on the big ice. No one knew better the grit and determination Brown showed playing against his brother’s friends, four years older, on the rink built every season in the family backyard. No one had shared those hours of mini-sticks down in the Chill Zone, as the Brown boys dubbed their basement, battling beneath the Irish flag and the Kings of Leon posters on the wall, and next to the life-size cut out they mockingly had made of their dad, Dan, in full gear when he was a kid.

In short, Jeff Brown had insider information. So he picked his little brother to fill the last spot on the Shooter McGavins. And now he regrets it. “His fantasy numbers are godawful,” Jeff laughs. “I might have to drop him soon.”

Fantasy stats aside, in his first season with the Leafs Connor Brown has proven that he belongs in the NHL. On a roster that regularly includes seven rookies, Brown is part of a young core that is defining a new era for the long-suffering franchise. It’s an era that will be headlined by names like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, but already Brown is showing he can play more than a supporting role. The soon-to-be-23-year-old right-winger has been a consistent contributor on both offence and defence, earning praise from his coach and teammates. In a country that loves its local-boy-makes-good narratives, Brown fits the maple leaf-shaped mold perfectly. He’s as happy playing afternoon shinny as he is playing against NHL stars. And though his story is tailor-made for a Tim Horton’s commercial, for Brown it was never really about the glory of the end goal—he’s been living his dream the entire time.

Years before he lined up for his first faceoff beneath the Air Canada Centre’s score clock, Brown fell asleep every night beneath a light fixture that looked just like it. He was just a boy then; an undersized redhead growing up in Toronto’s west end. The CN Tower marked the Maple Leafs’ home in the city skyline, and Brown could see it while he played on the backyard rink his father meticulously managed. Some nights, that iconic place would feel close, almost within reach. Other times it seemed impossibly far away. But regardless, every night when his head hit the pillow, Brown was at the ACC, beneath that score clock—the Leafs always leading, 2-1, and time forever frozen with 12:26 left to play.

The Browns are as Toronto as families come. Connor’s parents met at Michael Power Catholic High School in Etobicoke, Ont. Anne Kennedy was a track star and Dan Brown played hockey. Both sides of the family proudly trace their roots back to the same village in Ireland, and their ancestors each arrived in Toronto in the 19th century. Dan’s father, Dan Sr.—now 89—is a lifelong Leafs fan who grew up watching the Cup-winning teams of the 1940s, led by players like Syl Apps and Ted Kennedy. “I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs with the Leafs,” says Dan Sr., who calls his grandson regularly to chat about how the team is doing. “Now, hopefully, they’re back on the good days again.”

Connor and Jeff often played on the rink in the park behind their grandparents’ house, a few blocks from where they lived. With their skates still on, the boys would trudge across the park with their friends, through the back gate and in for hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies. Dan Sr. couldn’t have imagined then that a grandson of his would one day wear the blue and white of the team he’d always cheered for.

That was a distant goal, even early on, but it was somewhat beside the point for the Browns. Sure, Connor dreamed of making the NHL, but hockey was simply a part of his family’s identity. Dan coached his sons throughout minor hockey. During games across the GTA, you could find him standing behind the bench and Anne in the stands next to four proud grandparents. Of that oldest generation, only Dan Sr. is still alive. But the foundation they helped lay has stuck with Connor. “Hockey is a family affair,” he says.

Team Brown, as they dubbed themselves, became a staple in Greater Toronto Hockey League arenas when the boys were growing up. Dan coached Connor when he played mite for the West Mall Lightning, and continued to coach when most of that team of ’94 birthdays joined the Toronto Marlboros organization. That team went on to dominate, keeping its core together and winning 10 straight city championships. Seven of its players were selected in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, including Scott Laughton, of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Adam Pelech, of the New York Islanders. Despite that success, Dan was never the kind of overbearing hockey parent all-too-common across this country. He loved the game, but never had an NHL-or-bust focus for his sons. In fact, Connor says, the team was so good his father would often short-shift him late in games. “I never once drove home with him after a game, and had him give me crap,” Connor says. “It would be me giving it to him.”

Hockey provided a way for Dan Brown to connect with his sons. The three shared a mutual love for the game from the earliest days, when they first starting skating on the rink in their backyard. Connor would often sit with his dad at the kitchen table drawing up practice drills. Since joining the Leafs, Connor has shown up to practices for the minor midget Marlboros team his father still coaches. “He’s going to be a good coach one day.” says Dan. “He’s a natural.”

“If someone stole the puck from him, he’d almost take it personal. We used to joke that on our five-on-three kill we didn’t have a system—we just had Brown.”

Early on, it seemed as though coaching was the more likely future for Connor than playing at an elite level. He was a late bloomer, undersized when he was eligible for the OHL draft. He was essentially an afterthought, going 251st to the Erie Otters in 2010. He spent the next season playing for the St. Michael’s Buzzers in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, before joining the Otters for the 2011-12 campaign. The late selection and year of seasoning didn’t discourage Brown. In his first season, he led the Otters in scoring with 25 goals and 53 points, but the team finished last in the league with just 10 wins.

That June, the Brown family sat in their living room watching the NHL Draft as it unfolded in Pittsburgh. While there was hope that Connor would be picked, there wasn’t enough assurance for the family to attend in person. They sat nervously as several of Brown’s former minor hockey teammates and good friends were selected. In the sixth round, the Maple Leafs called Connor’s name—156th overall. The number had significance for the family. It was the lucky number of Anne’s late father, Tom Kennedy, who grew up at 156 Greenlaw Ave. in Toronto and always boxed the numbers when he gambled at Woodbine Racetrack. “It’s like a dream,” says Anne Brown. “I don’t think it’s fully registered.”

Still, Brown was a long way from actually getting on NHL ice. He was named captain of the Otters when he returned in 2012-13. That season, a 15-year-old rookie named Connor McDavid joined the team. The following year, Brown broke out on a line with McDavid and Dane Fox, netting 45 goals and 128 points in 68 games to lead the OHL in scoring. But even through his remarkable offensive campaign, his coach, Kris Knoblauch, was just as impressed with what Brown did on defence. “If someone stole the puck from him, he’d almost take it personal. We used to joke that on our five-on-three kill we didn’t have a system—we just had [Brown],” Knoblauch says. “He would break up every single play … It’s not often you see a guy win a scoring title. But I was more impressed with his defensive play.”

Throughout that campaign, Brown’s ailing grandmother, Noreen Kennedy, made the trip out to Erie with Anne for all of his home games. She’d stay for the weekend, watching her grandson play the best hockey of his life. “She was the biggest fan for sure,” Brown says. Noreen died of lung cancer shortly after seeing Connor win the 2013-14 Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s most valuable player at the OHL awards banquet.

Like the rest of his young career, Brown’s transition to pro hockey was a family affair. Joining the Toronto Marlies in 2013, he moved back in with his parents, to the house he’d lived in since he was four. At the same time, his brother was playing hockey for the University of Toronto—soon to go pro with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL. For the first time since Jeff had left to play for the Oshawa Generals years earlier, the brothers were back living together, hanging out in the Chill Zone and playing puck behind their grandfather’s house whenever they had the chance. “I always feel like I play better once I get the shinny going,” Connor says.

The brothers also continued a tradition they’d started when Jeff left to play junior. The annual Beauty Bowl is an outdoor game played during the Christmas holidays. “It was our version of the Winter Classic, with a few beers thrown in,” says Jeff.

The Beauties are a group of carefully curated players with ties to the Brown family. Skill levels range from those who played shinny in high school to those who play in the NHL and it’s a serious affair. Teams are drafted by the brothers weeks in advance of the game, which is played on an outdoor rink in Etobicoke. The winners are awarded a Stanley-Cup sized trophy that resides at the Brown home.

Last season, when Connor’s foot was broken by a slap shot while playing for the Marlies, he stood on the bench at the Beauty Bowl and coached the team of friends he’d drafted. En route to victory, he short-shifted his less-talented players near the end of the game, just as his father had done to him years before.

This year Brown’s NHL commitments forced him to cancel the Beauty Bowl for the first time since its inauguration. The Leafs’ schedule had him in Colorado and Arizona in the days leading up to Christmas, when the Beauties traditionally take the ice. After the holiday there was the Centennial Classic against the Detroit Red Wings—one outdoor spectacular supplanting another.

Brown scored and added two assists in the Leafs’ thrilling overtime win over the Red Wings. And with five points in his last four games, he’s earned another shot with the Shooter McGavins. “He’s been one of my top producers, so he’s off the trade block,” says Jeff Brown. “I’m sure he was on pins and needles.”

As Brown continues to be a key part of the Leafs roster, it looks like the Beauty Bowl will have to remain on hiatus for a while. Playing alongside Matthews and fellow local kid Zach Hyman, Brown has looked right at home. His instincts for the game have helped him quickly adapt to the NHL and he’s found his offence, posting a respectable nine goals and 18 points through 39 games, while also a being key part of the Leafs’ penalty kill. Mike Babcock regularly relies on Brown to play a shutdown role against potent offences. “He can play any situation,” says Matthews, who rooms with Brown on the road. “He’s the kind of player who does everything the right way.”

There is an easy camaraderie on this young Leafs roster that is evident on and off the ice. The camera that caught Marner and Matthews singing “Living on a Prayer” on the Leafs bench together early in the season was a glimpse at a fun-loving youth movement, which carries beyond the arena. Although Brown is excluded from the Call of Duty video game sessions several of his teammates regularly embark on— “Because [he’s] terrible at video games,” Marner says—he is central to the bond the Leafs are forming.

Off the ice, the Brown family home quickly became a social hub for the team’s young core. Matthews raided Dan Brown’s closet at Halloween to come up with the perfect Ken Bone costume. “I don’t know if he’d ever worn [the outfit]. We had to take the tag off of it,” Brown says. “And [Matthews] never returned it, so Danny’s rattled.”

Morgan Reilly has stopped in for dinner, as has Frederik Andersen. “It’s a lot of chirping each other, a lot of yucking,” Brown says. “It’s been a really good combination of work and play. Being in the room, hanging, and making it light and fun. It really relaxes you. I always play better when I’m around friends.”

“He can play any situation. He’s the kind of player who does everything the right way.”

Several of Brown’s teammates have visitied the condo he moved into before the New Year—Marner being the exception, indignant when he learned that he’d been left out. “We hate him,” Matthews joked, as Marner gave him a playful shove.

Moving to the new place was a big change for Brown, who had slept in his childhood bedroom since he joined the Marlies. His parents and some other relatives helped set up his new digs while he was on the road. Connor picked out some furniture hoping to give the place a “classy” feel, and his grandfather is going to build some new shelves. But as he moved into this new chapter in his life, Brown made sure he got assurances that some things would never change.

The Chill Zone remains intact in the Brown family basement, ready for any impromptu mini-stick battles. The Beauty Bowl trophy still sits in the living room, taking up more space than Anne would like. And that old score clock light fixture still hangs—the time frozen, the score unchanged—one of many concrete reminders of the boyhood dream Connor Brown is still living.

Photo Credits

Luis Mora; Chris Young/CP; Nathan Denette/CP (2)