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'Big passion' for hockey takes former OHLer from Texas to The Rock

'The places that the game of hockey takes you, it’s incredible,' says Matt Brassard, who's now playing for ECHL's Newfoundland Growlers
Barrie native Matt Brassard is shown in his OHL days with the Oshawa Generals.

Matt Brassard’s passion for hockey has taken him from Barrie to Oshawa and St. Catharines before brief stops in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Wichita, Kansas.

After three years out east at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), the Barrie native has played in Savannah, Georgia and Allen, Texas and is now back out east on the blue line for the ECHL's Newfoundland Growlers.

“When I was 16 years old and signing a contract in Barrie, I never thought I’d be playing in Savannah (Ghost Pirates) or Newfoundland at some point,” said the 25-year-old, who was drafted by his hometown Colts in the fourth round of the 2014 OHL Priority Selection.

“The places that the game of hockey takes you, it’s incredible.”

Brassard, who was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh round (188th overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, hopes he’s found a home in Newfoundland for at least the next few seasons.

The six-foot-three, 205-pound defenceman made a brief stop at the end of last season in Georgia with the ECHL’s Ghost Pirates before being traded to the Allen Americans last summer.

His stop there early this season was also a short one and he was signed by Newfoundland in mid-November. In 20 games with the affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs and AHL's Toronto Marlies, he has two goals and six assists for eight points in 20 games.

Barrie native Matt Brassard is shown playing with the University of PEI. | Photo supplied

“It’s been awesome,” Brassard said of his return back east after spending four years playing university hockey in P.E.I. “We get a lot of support out here. The fans are really passionate about hockey. They had an AHL team here a while back before they brought an ECHL team. I know there’s a lot of Leaf fans on the Island and we’re affiliated with the Leafs, so they love coming to watch us play.

“I hope I’ve found a home here for at least the rest of the season and hopefully for a couple of more years after that,” he added. “It’s a really great place to play in this league and the Marlies and the Maple Leafs really put a lot of effort into making this a top-end team to play for in the ECHL.”

The Growlers (16-16-7-2) are currently tied in third place in the ECHL’s North Conference with the Worchester Railers, though they’ve gone through a tough stretch of late posting an 0-4-2 record over their last six games.

Brassard admitted it can be tough getting in a rhythm due to the team not having the same lineup every night because of so many injuries and players getting called up.

“It’s a bit of a roller-coaster sometimes, but we’re still working hard every day at practice and in the gym,” he said. “I think we’ll get in a bit of a groove here soon. It’s just tough sometimes in this league to find some consistency when your lineup is looking different every night.”

For Brassard, certainly, his highlight in his brief career with the Growlers has been getting a front seat to the return to hockey of 47-year-old Terry Ryan, a native Newfoundlander who signed a one-game contract with the team on his birthday, Jan. 14.

Ryan, who starred with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans in junior hockey, was drafted eighth overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1995, but he would only play eight games over three seasons before an ankle injury forced him to quit in 2001.

Ryan, who is now an actor on Letterkenny hockey spin-off Shoresy, hadn’t suited up in 20 years before suiting up in Newfoundland’s 6-2 loss to the Adirondack Thunder. He had seven penalty minutes in the game, including a fight.

“That was something I never expected I would be a part of,” explained Brassard, who was recently talking to his dad, Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard, and girlfriend and called it one of the coolest days of his life. “Just being able to talk to him and hear some stories from him, because obviously he’s a legend in Newfoundland and he’s a legend in the hockey world.

“He got to tell some stories to us that were pretty funny to hear and probably some things I shouldn’t share here," he joked. "It would have been easy for him to go out there and kind of make a joke out of it, but he was pretty intense about it.”

Ryan showed up hours before the game, warmed up with the team and even had the music going in his stall in the dressing room.

“He was ready to go," Brassard said of Ryan. “That’s one guy that’s definitely, at his age, has not lost passion for the game. He’s somebody I’m going to one day tell my kids and all my friends that I got to share the ice with him in a special moment in the hockey world.”

Brassard spent parts of two seasons with the Colts before being traded to Oshawa. He played almost three years with the Generals before finishing up his last season of junior hockey with the Niagara IceDogs.

He says he looks back a lot at his OHL career and calls them some of the best years of his life. He enjoyed playing for his hometown team, but admits it wasn’t easy and he credits then-general manager Jason Ford and owner Howie Campbell with moving him to the Generals where his game took off.

Being able to focus on himself and his game and not have any distractions from playing in my hometown was big for Brassard.

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Matt Brassard is shown in a file photo with his dad, John, who is also the MP for Barrie-Innisfil. | Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

“I took a lot of pride in putting the Barrie Colts jersey on because it’s a team I grew up watching and loving my whole childhood,” he said. “It’s tough when every single game you have a bunch of friends that you went to school with coming to the games and you have family asking you for tickets and sometimes it’s hard to just focus on playing hockey.

“I’m not saying that wasn’t the reason I succeeded that well in Barrie, but I just think when I went to Oshawa my game went to a whole other level. I was able to just focus on myself and focus on hockey and not have outside distractions.”

Brassard also says he thoroughly enjoyed his time in school on Prince Edward Island.

He admits he thought going to school after the OHL was “kind of end game,” but he says he got a reality check when he got to school.

“No knock on the OHL, but our teams at school and teams I played against can more than compete against teams in the OHL of those top guys that move to the next level,” said Brassard. “I was really surprised with the level of play.”

It also provided him with a “tremendous opportunity” to be able to pull over the Canadian jersey and represent his country at the FISU University Games.

“It was definitely a goal of mine to make that team when I was in my fourth year,” said Brassard, who had no clue about the tournament until one of his teammates was selected in his second year at school. “They do it every other year, so I was able to make that team and we were able to win gold, and I made some friends I still talk to this day.”

He also had another “cool” university experience when he was selected to suit up against the Canadian national junior team that would end up winning a gold medal at the 2023 world championships in Halifax and Moncton.

He and his UPEI teammates also got the chance last March to host the 2023 U Sports Cup.

“It was an atmosphere I’ve never experienced before,” Brassard said of the national championships. “I never got to play on that big stage when I was in junior and never made the finals and never made the Memorial Cup, so that’s kind of the closest thing I got to that.”

His passion for the game has only got stronger over the years. Brassard wants to continue to play the game professionally as long as he can.

“I was drafted to the NHL, which was a huge accomplishment of mine and something I’ll never forget,” he said.

No matter where hockey takes him, Brassard wants to continue in the game even after he’s done playing — help an organization win a championship as a coach or as a member of the hockey staff.

“I’ve always had a big passion for hockey. Not just playing hockey, but learning the game,” he said. “I’ve always been a big fan of hockey. I’ve always said when I’m done playing, I would love to work within an organization and try to help build a team or do whatever I can to help a team win because I feel the knowledge I have for the game and the hours and years now I’ve put into it learning how to play the game, and meeting people that have played the game at such a high level, I’ve always just found I’m so passionate about hockey.

“It’s something I want to continue even when I’m not playing.”

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Gene Pereira

About the Author: Gene Pereira

An award-winning journalist, Gene is former sports editor of the Barrie Examiner and his byline has appeared in several newspapers. He is also the longtime colour analyst of the OHL Barrie Colts on Rogers TV
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