TORONTO – Justin Brazeau was grateful the New Liskeard beach volleyball tournament always coincided with Day 2 of the NHL Draft.
That way he would have an outlet to busy himself, a ball to spike with all that nervous energy. That way he wouldn’t be tempted to flick on the TV or wear a trough in the carpet or obsessively check his phone for a call that never came.
“I went through that three times,” says the undrafted Brazeau, for whom stuffing away hope became an annual ritual.
“Last year I knew it was a bit of stretch, having gone through it twice, but I thought I had a good year and had a chance, and… I obviously didn’t. It’s disappointing, but you build on that and use it as motivation.”
Not all paths to the National Hockey League are identical, and the big-bodied, velvet-handed Brazeau is striving to make all those teams who deemed him too slow regret not calling his name.
Squeaking into the OHL as a 13th-round pick, and only then deciding to dedicate his attention to hockey, Brazeau scored just six times and put up seven assists as a junior rookie in 2015-16, but he doubled his production the following season and again the year after.
Undrafted after his 39-goal, 75-point tear for the North Bay Battalion in 2017-18, he tried in vain to secure a pro contract somewhere and was left with no choice but return for a fourth OHL season. Then he set the league ablaze, crushing the Battalion franchise record with 61 goals and 113 points in 68 games.
He was awarded the Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy as the top overage player in the league.
“It was more about proving to everybody that I belong and I can play at the next level. I don’t think there was a sense of [OHLers] being beneath me,” says Brazeau, 21.
“It was more, I’ve been in the league for four years now. My job was to go back and dominate.”
That domination led to phone calls from a group of clubs that thrice denied him on the draft floor.
A free agent, Brazeau chose the Toronto Maple Leafs, inking a two-year contract to try and stick with the Marlies.
“Any time a kid comes in as a 13th-round pick and works as hard as he did and accomplishes as much as he did, it’s a sign to the other players what happens when you work hard and develop,” Stan Butler, the Battalion’s director of hockey operations and coach, said.
Growing up five and half hours north of Toronto, Brazeau wasn’t always a Leafs diehard. He watched them, of course. But he was enamoured with Alex Ovechkin’s one-timer “and the excitement he brought when he scored goals.” He studied Sidney Crosby because “he’s the hardest-working superstar in the world.” And he appreciated how power forwards like Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton made up for their lack of footspeed with their hockey sense and playmaking.
That’s Brazeau’s objective. That’s why he chose the Leafs.
The knock on the six-foot-six, 61-goal man, the reason he was never drafted, is that he’s too slow. Can’t skate.
“It’s always been that through my junior career. I know that,” he says. “I’m from the North. I’ve never had too much power skating or anything like that.”
Enter Barb Underhill, the blade whisperer.
“She’s definitely one of the best in the business,” Brazeau says.
Brazeau drove south in mid-May and is dedicating this summer to his stride, hitting the ice for sessions with Underhill, the Leafs dedicated skating coach, three or four times a week and training daily at the Leafs practice facility.
Underhill is dismantling Brazeau’s stride right down to the basics in order to rebuild it properly, like a golfer learning a new swing starting with the grip and stance.
No other team was offering the late-blooming prospect this level of investment and attention, so he’s banking on hard work and improvement to pay the Leafs back.
“They gave me the best chance of taking my pro career forward,” Brazeau says. “I know I have to earn my spot on the team.”
Brazeau is finally undergoing the type of intense skills and skating training the majority of his drafted peers received as kids, but you won’t catch him regretful.
“I wouldn’t change how I got here. Growing up, I was able to play any sport I wanted,” Brazeau reasons.
Golf with buddies. Basketball and volleyball at high school. Squash with Dad.
“My parents never pushed me too hard to do any one thing, and that kinda helped my love for the game. When I turned 14, that’s when I thought hockey is what I wanted to do.”
Brazeau began his minor midget season at five-foot-10 and 140 pounds. By season’s end, he was six-foot-two and 180 pounds.
“I’ve been growing like that ever since,” he smiles. “I think I’m done growing — hopefully.”
Brazeau says it took time to get used to his body, to maximize his reach and positioning, to find out just how dangerous he could be on the cycle and in the slot. Finishing plays has become more natural.
The Brazeau Project is yet another example of Kyle Dubas’s Leafs betting on skill and flexing their financial and development muscle.
If Underhill can get him up to speed, Brazeau has the size and hands to become a legitimate power forward.
If not? Well, it won’t be for lack of effort.