Taking the Next Step
Former UMD Bulldog J.T. Brown is finding his way in Tampa Bay
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In the college hockey galaxy J.T. Brown was a supernova, exploding in a brilliant burst of light and then, seemingly as quickly, he was gone. But the galactic remnants the former Minnesota-Duluth star left behind could hardly be more memorable. His 84 points (40-44–84) in 81 career, while impressive enough, are eclipsed by his role in leading UMD to its first national title at the 2011 Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
A freshman at the time, Brown was named the most outstanding player of one of the finest Frozen Fours in recent memory, a feat the former Rosemount, Minn. high school star accomplished , as is often said, right in his own back yard. He made his return to the scene of the highlight of his hockey career on Tuesday, only now as a member of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa’s 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Although he expected somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 friends and family members to be on hand and was excited to play in front of them, Brown said he was making an effort to take a “more business as usual” approach.
“You don’t try to put too much into it but, at the same time, you get out there, you sit on the bench, I mean you still have to take it into consideration,” he admitted. “I still remember everything that happened in the national championship game so those things still come back to you.”
Not surprisingly, Brown’s focus after the loss was on his team rather than himself when asked about his first trip home as a professional.
“You obviously want to win the game but, I mean there’s good things to take out of it, we battled hard at the end,” Brown said of the Lightning’s third-period rally coming up short. “There’s obviously things we’d have like to have done better but it was still good to play here.”
Having opened the season playing 13 games for the Syracuse Crunch, Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate, Brown was recalled on Nov. 12 the day after Lightning star Steven Stamkos broke his right tibia in gruesome fashion:
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After registering just one assist in a five-game stint with the Lightning late in the 2011-12 season, Brown tallied his first NHL goal in just his third game back in the league, beating Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith in a Nov. 16 contest in Glendale, Ariz. as you can see here.
Brown has since scored three more times and added eight assists in 33 games and has become a fixture in the Tampa Bay lineup wearing his familiar sweater No. 23, the number his father Ted wore as a star running back for North Carolina State in the late 1970s and later throughout his eight-season (1979-86) career with the Minnesota Vikings.
Ted Brown was an All-ACC selection following each of his four seasons with the Wolfpack and capped off his NCAA career as a consensus All-American. His distinguished tenure at NC State earned him an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 where he will be officially enshrined this summer with the likes of Vinny Testaverde, Tommy Frazier and Tedy Bruschi.
Vikings fans may or may not remember Brown’s crucial role in, perhaps, the most memorable drive in team history. Ahmad Rashad’s one-handed reception of a 46-yard Tommy Kramer “Hail Mary” pass to beat the Cleveland Browns will be forever remembered in the annals of Vikings lore. But that 12-second, 80-yard NFC-Central-clinching drive on Dec. 14, 1980 doesn’t happen without Brown’s 34-yard gain the previous play courtesy of a Joe Senser lateral.
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It would seem natural that the man’s son would grow up pursuing a football career. While J.T. Brown played some football as a youth, it became apparent it was on the ice, not the gridiron, where his passion lied and his eighth-grade football season was his last.
J.T. said it just came down to wanting to focus his full attention on pursuing a hockey career, a decision his father had no trouble with. “I always told all my kids to do what they want to do and what they feel like they love to do and I’d support them,” Ted Brown said. “That’s an awful lot of pressure for a young kid to have a dad who has succeeded and for that kid to follow in his footsteps.”
In a way, Ted saw the writing on the wall when he first moved to Minnesota, well before J.T. came along, when he saw the sheer number of hockey-playing kids in the area. He said had a feeling, once J.T. arrived, hockey might be something his son would take up and, of course excel at.
“Being in Minnesota, everyone in my neighborhood played hockey so I wasn’t going to be the one person who wasn’t playing,” J.T. said, acknowledging the self-imposed peer pressure which sparked his hockey career. “It was just me hanging out with all my friends and, whether it was roller hockey or going out and skating on the ponds, I just started skating and getting into teams with local guys in my neighborhood.”
Father and son grew in the game together, each learning the intricacies of the sport in progression. Ted said he learned a lot about hockey from being around J.T. and being around the rink with his coaches as well as traveling the country and into Canada with the elite teams his son was selected to growing up.
J.T. says his dad’s hockey knowledge is now to the point where you’d never know he wasn’t raised in the sport. On the other hand, Ted’s unfamiliarity with the sport had its advantages growing up, according to his son.
“That was one thing that was good for me, too, about hockey growing up is that he always said he couldn’t correct me,” J.T. said. “He just told me to work on how hard I’d compete and that’s the only thing you can control. So since he didn’t know the game that well he couldn’t actually criticize me too much or give me constructive criticism.”
Although Ted Brown was limited in what he could offer in terms of hockey instruction, his influence on his son’s character and playing style is immeasurable.
Drawing from his own experiences, Ted says he has preached to J.T. about the responsibility he has as an athlete, not only to himself, but to his team as well to consistently work hard. Play hard, play smart and play together is a Brown family mantra which has succeeded in getting both father and son to the highest level of their respective sports.
“He can’t dictate the outcome of someone else but he can dictate how much effort he puts into what he’s doing,” he said. “Play smart is not getting yourself caught up in things that may be said on a hockey rink that has been said to him and not letting those things upset you. As for play together, hockey is a team sport and you’ve got other players on your team; try to make other members of your team, or on your line, be better. No matter how good you are, there’s some other people around there that are helping you to become great.”
Brown’s illustrious high school career at Rosemount included 140 points (75-65–140) over three years and culminated with a senior year in which he led the Irish to a 20-win season. The icing on the cake came when Brown was distinguished with the honor of becoming the first African-American to be nominated as a Mr. Hockey Finalist in Minnesota.
Ted Brown, a 19-year veteran of of the RamseyCount Correction Department as a juvenile probation officer, sees J.T. as a role model to young African-Americans who might not otherwise consider taking up the sport.
“There’s not a lot of African-American kids playing hockey, I know they have a few NHL players, but hopefully he can become a pioneer to help other kids be interested in playing,” Ted said. “I’m happy for him that he’s gotten to this point where he is a professional hockey player and he can help other kids that might want to become a hockey player and show them that anything is possible if you believe in what you want to do.”
Following UMD’s national title season, J.T. returned as a sophomore and helped lead the Bulldogs to the brink of the Frozen Four once again. But a 4-0 loss to Boston College in the Northeast Regional final shattered their dreams of a championship repeat leaving Brown with a difficult decision to make.
As an undrafted player, Brown was free to sign with any NHL organization which pursued him and, after his exceptional two-year stint in Duluth, suitors for his professional services were aplenty. The decision wasn’t easy for him but three days after the B.C. loss Brown signed a contract with the Lightning.
“There’s chances that you could get injured, obviously, playing again in college and you never know what’s going to happen the next year,” Brown said of his decision-making process. “I think, also, winning a national championship helped make it a little bit easier because that’s one of your main goals when you come into college is to try to win a national championship and we had done that. At that point, we kind of decided that Tampa was the right fit and it’s been a good fit so far.”
Brown feels like he is adjusting well to NHL level but he knows there is much more work to be done.
“You’re still learning things every day, it’s still new and I’ve only played so many games and the only way you’re going to get accustomed to playing this style and the way the NHL is being played is to continue to play games.”
Tampa Bay assistant coach George Gwozdecky, who now coaches Brown as opposed to game-planning to stop him as he did as the long-time coach of Denver University, sees an impressive present and an even brighter future for his former foe.
“He is a guy that works hard every day, always has a smile on his face, he’s got a great personality and fits in great with the team,” Gwozdecky said. “He’s a very team-oriented guy and you can see why a team like [Minnesota-Duluth] did well with him as one of their leaders because of his zest for the game and the skill set that he brings.”
While Brown’s adjustment to the NHL remains a work in progress, all indications would indicate the transition from Minnesota resident to Florida resident is complete.
“When you’re still wearing shorts to the rink right now, it’s definitely something that you take advantage of,” Brown said. “It only took two and a half short months to not really like the cold weather anymore.”