CALGARY – It may go a long way towards explaining his ability to turn on a dime, deftly sneak into the play and catch unsuspecting opponents off guard.
Growing up on a farm in southwest Ontario’s Chatham-Kent municipality, T.J. Brodie found himself tasked with catching the chickens.
“Don’t spook ’em,” said Brodie of the golden rule of plucking poultry from the pens. “The biggest thing when you’re collecting them is not to scare them because they’ll have heart attacks. So you have to go in there and be gentle with them to catch ’em. You have to be fast – you grab both wings and put them in the cage.”
That’s where the soft hands must come in.
Brodie has been patrolling the Calgary Flames’ blue line for nine seasons now, demonstrating the type of speed, dexterity and smarts required to not only catch chickens, but also beat opponents around the NHL.
He does it with a creative mind and an elite skating stride he honed on the frozen outdoor rinks outside Chatham, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend.
“My dad would make a rink every year out in the barn or in the yard somewhere,” said Brodie of the farm Jay and Lynn Brodie still operate a half hour from Brodie’s summer home. “My dad always wanted me to learn how to work hard, whether that was on the farm or practising out in the shed and shooting pucks. [The barn] is still a little dented – he’s done a little work, too, so it’s not as bad as it used to be.”
Brodie’s fond memories of playing in Dresden, Ont., also included a lifestyle that required chipping in on the farm, which included tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas and, of course, those chickens.
“I helped out when they needed it, but they usually had it covered,” smiled the soft-spoken 28-year-old. “Hockey was always my No. 1 focus – my dad let me do that. He was definitely the main influence in my hockey career and in my life. He was always taking me to the rink. He coached me while I was growing up.
“Sometimes I think he’s a little harder than he wanted to be on me, but in the end it paid off.”
Brodie went on to star with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit before getting drafted in the fourth round by Calgary in 2008.
After parts of three seasons in the minors he became a regular in Calgary, where he has posted five straight seasons of more than 30 points.
Forever looking to use his speed to jump into the play to create offence, Brodie is recognized as one of the better playmakers amongst NHL defencemen.
“There are very few in the league that can play the way he plays when he’s on top of his game,” said GM Brad Treliving of a man who played his 500th NHL game earlier this season and has one more year left on the $23.25-million deal he signed back in 2014.
Despite his copious talents, however, Brodie regularly admits he’s struggled with self-belief for years – especially the last two when he was separated from current partner Mark Giordano. It didn’t help when he became Calgary fans’ favourite whipping boy because his creativity and risk-taking also led to glaring lapses at times, resulting in a combined minus-16.
But calls for Brodie to be traded in the off-season were readily ignored by Treliving. Instead, the GM hoped that by trading Dougie Hamilton and reuniting Brodie with Giordano would help him return to form that saw him eclipse 40 points two years in a row.
“He’s just a good player – you sometimes have to reinforce that with guys,” the GM said. “Everybody wants to criticize him, but he was a top-10 defenceman in the league [and] he’s been really good all year. He has his confidence back. Confidence is a funny thing. It’s so powerful.”
And so far, so good. Brodie has been masterful once again, spending plenty of time of late as the league’s plus-minus leader at plus-19.
“I definitely wasn’t happy with the way last year went and I tried to focus this year on playing the way I did a couple years ago,” he said. “I think one of the biggest things is just finding that confidence again to go out there to believe in myself and play the way that got me here.
“You’re going to make mistakes, but the biggest thing is not getting too down. Bad things are going to happen, but the faster you move on the better it is.”
He’s done that with a stride Giordano said is second to none in the league.
“He’s so good on his edges – I’ve watched him for a long time, and it’s an art, to be honest,” said Giordano, a Norris Trophy frontrunner with Brodie by his side. “To be able to spin and get away from forecheckers and other players like he does is incredible.
“He’s a quiet guy and doesn’t show his emotions much to other guys, but he cares and has a lot more fire than people give him credit for. He’s a big part of our team.”
As with most things, Brodie refuses to get too wound up about challenging for the NHL’s plus-minus lead.
“If you have a good game you know it, and if you have a bad game you know it – plus/minus doesn’t always reflect that either way,” said Brodie, who added that recently becoming a father has also helped him put setbacks in perspective. “It’s one of those things that’s nice to be in the plus … but at the end of the day it doesn’t show the whole game.”
Regardless of his stats (he has three goals and nine assists this year), his game of speed and finesse has been an integral part of the Flames’ surge to the top of the west.
Something those Chatham-area chickens knew all too well about.