A high stick, a trip to the hospital, stuck in a taxicab in a horrific Philadelphia traffic jam, and then playing in the biggest game of his NHL career. Moorestown, N.J., native T.J. Brennan capped off the end of the 2011-2012 professional hockey season with a bizarre final game against his hometown Philadelphia Flyers, ending a year that saw the young defensemen jumping back and forth between the big league team and its American Hockey League affiliate.
On April 5, just two days after his 23rd birthday, Brennan stepped onto the ice at the Wells Fargo Center in front of his entire family – which still resides in Moorestown – and played in the most important game of the Buffalo Sabres season against his boyhood team. The Sabres were embroiled in the playoff hunt, chasing after the eighth and final seed with only two games remaining, and they needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Despite travelling with the team to Philadelphia, Brennan said he thought he had no chance at playing in the night’s game. It was too important a match for the team to throw in a 23-year-old rookie defensemen with only 10 previous NHL games under his shoulder pads, and Brennan thought he would be watching the game from a suite in the arena.
The day didn’t start off picture perfect for Brennan, either. During his morning practice, Brennan took a high stick to the face and had to be transported to a hospital in the city.
“The team told me to come just in case on the trip. One of the guys, Alex Sulzer who the team traded from Vancouver, his wife had to get surgery suddenly that day. I had skated that morning thinking I wasn’t going to play and I ended up getting a high stick in the morning practice, I got stiches and was in the hospital for most of the day,” he said. “I came over to the hotel at 4:30 p.m., got a nap, and jumped in the cab to go to the rink at 6:15 p.m. and got a call that said I was playing. I was stuck in a cab going over to the rink! I told them I couldn’t go any faster, I was in traffic. I got there and it was crazy. I got off the phone with the coach and called my dad and told them I was playing and to come over. I didn’t really play too much given the circumstances, my legs were tired, but I was ready to play but it was still very cool.”
The Sabres and Flyers went into the final five minutes of the game tied at 1-1, but Matt Read scored on a breakaway with 4:21 left in the game and the Flyers held on for the win, effectively ending the Sabres season.
But for Brennan, every minute played on NHL ice is important experience. He travelled back to the Rochester Americans, the Sabres AHL team, to get ready for the squad’s playoff run.
The 23-year-old former Moorestown High School Quaker hockey star had a taste of the big leagues this past year, playing in the first 11 NHL games of his professional hockey career. Brennan played his first game for the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 23, 2011, debuting against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
Brennan also joined a prestigious list of professional hockey players who notched a goal in their first ever game. Brennan was “gapping up” on an offensive rush and found himself unmarked in front of the Bruins’ all-star goalie Tim Thomas. A shot from the wing bounced off a Bruins defensemen and settled itself right next to Brennan, who stuffed the puck by Thomas for his first ever NHL goal.
Not too shabby for a young man who decided to forgo his senior year at Moorestown High School to play professionally in Quebec seven years ago.
“Its funny about your first game, I talked to a few people about it. It’s almost surreal; you’re so ready for it that I was almost worried that I wasn’t nervous. I napped that day, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, but everything was fine. I was confident, I felt great, but my first shift was a really average shift. The puck was in the neutral zone the entire time; we were going back and forth, going defense to defense, nothing crazy,” he said. “The best advice I was given is that no career is made or broken on the first game. Nobody was expecting too much. It was a lot of fun.”
The team had a bit of fun with Brennan after his first shift, though, as he caught an edge while skating and wiped out on the ice. Brennan laughed when he remembered Sabres Head Coach Lindy Ruff smiling at him when he got back to the bench and told him to keep playing hard.
With a taste of the NHL coursing through his blood now, Brennan said his goal is to lead the Americans on a Calder Cup run this playoff season, train hard over the summer, and make a run at the next Sabres training camp to crack the top-six defensemen and make the NHL squad.
It’s tough to spend so much time on the road, training, and sleeping in hotels while bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL, Brennan said, but games like the April 5 match versus the Flyers certainly helps. It was fantastic stepping out onto the ice in front of so many friends and family, Brennan said, and the support from everyone locally has been fantastic.
“The most important thing is how much support I’ve gotten from the community and from my family back home. Coming from a smaller town, I’ve gotten very lucky and have gotten a lot of support from everyone. It’s great knowing that there’s so much support,” he said. “Times get tough sometimes so it’s great to know how much support I have. I’m very thankful for everything.”