EDMONTON — “I believe he was a skill player.”
Jake DeBrusk keeps a straight face for as long as he can, and then breaks into a smile. The question is about his father, Louie DeBrusk, who played 228 of his 401 career National Hockey League games as a scrapping winger for the Edmonton Oilers.
How did a man who had 1,161 penalty minutes in 401 career games guide his son to become this NHL rookie who already has 11 goals this season? How much would the father have loved to have been able to play the game the way his son plays it, without the pressure of being an NHL heavyweight?
What elements of Jake’s game — he’s a skilled, speedy point-producer — can we attribute to Louie, a fearsome fighter whose NHL career spanned from 1991 to 2003?
“I want to say, everything,” Jake said.
I was a beat reporter for the Edmonton Journal back in 1991, the day Louie arrived from New York in the Mark Messier deal, alongside Bernie Nicholls and Steven Rice. DeBrusk was big, could skate and shoot hard, and he wasn’t afraid. In a town that always had a fearsome heavyweight, DeBrusk was the next one.
But, as we learned, he was also far too nice a person for the job. He did it well. But inside, it ate at him. I remember him telling me once how it hurt him when he would meet kids, and all they wanted to talk about was his last scrap.
As a teenager, DeBrusk Sr. got pigeonholed into this awful role. But it got him to the NHL and, like so many others, now the role held him hostage. Sure, he could stop fighting. But he’d probably have to find another line of work.
(Full disclosure: Louie works with me on the Sportsnet panel for Oilers regional home games. He is a colleague, and a friend.)
“I was solid. I could play,” Louie said Wednesday morning, before watching Jake take the morning skate for the Boston Bruins. “When I was relaxed, and I wasn’t worried about the giant on the other side trying to take my head off in a fight all game, I could make plays. I could do things.”
If he’d never won that first fight at age 16, if he hadn’t been moved from centre to wing — because that’s where tough guys always play — could he have still made the NHL?
“Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like to be coming up in the game today,” he said. “Could I be a Patrick Maroon? He’s got better hands than I ever had. But, if I wasn’t fighting from 16 years of age — all the time, and expected to fight — would I have worked on my skills and been a better player? I think so.”
Eventually, the heavyweight married an Edmonton girl named Cindy, and had two kids: daughter Jordyn and Jake. Soon the tough guy was a hockey dad, but not one whose son had to follow his footsteps into the NHL.
“My thing was, ‘If you love the game, then love the game.’ If you’re going to work hard at it, put your time in, study the game, love the game — and you’re good enough and have the talent — you’ll excel. And he has.”
DeBrusk Sr. tried to stay out of the way, but while Jake would marvel at Patrick Kane’s moves, Louie would say, “Hey, take a look at how Marian Hossa plays.”
One day he told his son a story.
“I said, Jake, you’re going to come to a time when there’s a penalty shot. And the guys you think are stars on your team, they’re going to hide underneath the bench. They don’t want the responsibility or pressure of taking that penalty shot. You want to be one of the guys who jumps up and say, ‘I want to be the guy.’
“When I was 12? Sure, I was one of those guys. But not in the NHL.”
Some time later, Jake was playing at the prestigious Mac’s midget tournament in Calgary. His team was awarded a penalty shot.
“No one wanted to go, and we needed to score to tie the game. There was, like, five minutes left. I wasn’t even on the ice, but you could pick anybody, and (the coach) was going up and down saying, ‘Who wants it?’ No one wanted it.
“My buddy, Giorgio Estephan (a sixth round pick of Buffalo’s) said, ‘Jake should take it.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it,’ went out there, and was lucky enough to score.”
The father, of course, recalls it slightly differently: “The coach went down the bench … and Jake said, ‘I’ll take it!’ Then he shelfed it. He undressed the goalie and buried it, bar-down.”
If there was ever any doubt, Jake learned that day to keep his ears open when the fighter was talking.
“Everyone wants to be that guy, until it comes down to crunch time,” Jake repeated, almost word for word. “I wasn’t really shouting that I wanted to do it, but inside my head I was confident that if I got the chance I would try to make the most of it.”
On Tuesday, I sat with Louie as Jake played in is hometown as an NHLer for the first time. Louie was typically professional when the cameras were on, a nervous hockey dad the rest of the time.
Down on the ice Jake hustled, played a hard 14:37, and came away a plus-1 in a 3-2 Bruins victory.
He was a good teammate and an asset to his club. Just like the old man.
“Those moments where the hockey instincts were ingrained in me my whole life. Hard work, intensity,” Jake said. “Honestly, everything about my game is moulded around him.
“He is the biggest reason why I am who I am as a player, and why I play the way I play.”