By: Kyle Watson
LONDON, ONT — It was just one of those nights where the puck wasn’t bouncing his way.
Brett Brochu missed with a poke check and the Kitchener Rangers went 1-0 up.
Then three more went past him.
On the fifth goal, a wild shot rebounded off the glass, down his back and into the net.
After allowing six goals on 24 shots, Brochu started the third period on the London Knights bench. It was just the third time he had been pulled in his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League.
Just a week earlier, the 17-year-old goaltender earned a shutout in a 1-0 victory over the Sudbury Wolves to snap the Knights four-game losing streak. With captains Liam Foudy and Alec Regula, as well as top scorer Connor McMichael, away at World Junior camps, the team had been struggling to control play.
The annual New Year’s home-and-home against Sarnia was on the horizon and the coaching staff decided to try something new: play Brochu the night after a loss.
With 20-year-old Dylan Myskiw on the roster, the Knights had never elected to play Brochu in a back-to-back following a defeat. However, they wanted to see how he would fare given what unfolded the previous night.
Not often do you point to a loss as a turning point in a player’s season, but for a rookie goaltender learning to keep level-headed throughout a 68-game season, figuring out how to bounce back after a tough loss can be momentous.
But Brett Brochu is no stranger to adversity. He has been defying expectations his whole career.
In his minor-midget year, Brochu played on a Chatham-Kent Cyclones team that finished eighth out of 12 in the Alliance U16 Hockey League. Standing at just five-foot-six, he was deemed too small by many scouts. Thus, he was not on a lot of Ontario Hockey League teams’ radars ahead of the 2018 Priority Selection.
It was almost by chance that the Knights scouting team stumbled upon the undersized goaltender, who was stealing games his team had no business winning.
“We would come to games to look at other goalie prospects that were highly touted, and Brett wasn’t talked about,” said Knights goaltending coach Daren Machesney.
“He would beat all of them. You can’t pass on a kid like that.”
The organization would end up selecting Brochu in the sixth round of the draft. He would be the eleventh goaltender taken.
Then came the next hurdle: he had nowhere to play.
With the Knights crease occupied by the returning duo of Joseph Raaymakers and Jordan Kooy, Brochu had to look elsewhere for work.
After being cut from multiple Junior B teams, it looked as though he was going to suit up for the Elgin Middlesex Chiefs AAA midget team. Then came an offer from Jason Badder, general manager of the Dresden Jr. Kings.
The Junior C club, which plays in the Provincial Junior Hockey League, was set to begin the season without a goaltender.
When Badder met with Brochu at the Knights summer training camp, he promised him the ice time that a 16-year-old goaltender needs to develop.
“I was told I would get 20 games,” explained Brochu.
After consulting with his family, as well as the coaching staff in London, he decided to accept the offer.
It did not take long for him to play those 20 games.
He would go on to win 27 games in 38 starts and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. With the calibre of performances he was producing, Badder was certain he shouldn’t have been playing at that level.
“He was good enough to start in Junior B and would’ve carried any team,” Badder told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press.
The Jr. Kings general manager noticed the same perseverance in Brochu that the Knights did when they drafted him.
“I’ve never met a kid more determined,” said Badder.
Brochu’s showings in Dresden did not go unnoticed in London. He signed with the team in July ahead of what would be his second training camp at Budweiser Gardens. His tenacity would serve him well in his first season of major junior.
In his NHL draft-eligible year, Brochu had no such guarantee of ice time.
Jordan Kooy was returning for his fourth season with the starting role nailed down, and the Knights had recently traded to acquire Matt Onuska from Kingston.
If the 17-year-old wanted to play, he knew he’d have to earn it.
“I was told there were going to be three goalies, and it was going to be a battle for the backup role,” said Brochu.
In the first game of the season, a 6-4 loss at home to Peterborough, Onuska came in to relieve Kooy. The next night, Brochu was on the bench as Kooy surrendered six goals on 32 shots and the Knights lost 6-2 in Barrie. With the veteran struggling to find a rhythm, coach Dale Hunter decided to shake things up versus Erie, opting to give Brochu the start.
He would be promptly rewarded.
The rookie stopped 23 of 25 shots he faced and won his team their first game of the season.
Within 24 hours, he had two OHL wins to his name, following a triumph over Hamilton. But it was the next week against Ottawa where Brochu announced himself to the league.
Fresh off a 106-point 2018-19 campaign, the 67’s were again expected to be one of the best teams in the OHL.
In a game featuring seven of the eventual top 20 scorers in the league, a goaltending battle materialized between Brochu and Ottawa’s Cedric Andree.
Brochu made a triple save on Austin Keating to keep the game tied at zero; then, the two netminders traded saves until the Knights broke the deadlock with a pair of goals in a minute and 37 seconds in the second period.
London would end up winning 3-0. Brochu was named the first star, earning his first career shutout. He started six of the next eight games, winning four, as the Knights began to piece things together.
By the time December came around, London had worked their way into the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 Rankings. Brochu was no longer battling for the backup spot – he was being tested out as the starter.
His final trial was that game in Sarnia.
Despite the contrast in the standings, the Sting had always played better against the Knights.
This game was no different.
Sarnia would force overtime, tying the game at three with 10 seconds left to play. However, Billy Moskal would win the game for the Knights with a solo effort in the extra frame.
That victory would prove to be a watershed moment for both Brochu and the team, who would go on a ten-game winning streak between January 12th to February 7th.
“That was one of the big turning points for him. He bounced back, and to me, he was our number one guy from that point on,” said Machesney.
Anyone who hadn’t heard the name Brett Brochu before the beginning of 2020 became aware of the goalie giving the 15-year-old sensation Shane Wright a run for his money for the Rookie of the Year award.
Before the season came to a halt prematurely, Brochu had won 19 of his 20 starts in 2020 and became the first 17-year-old goaltender in OHL history to win 32 games in a season. In May, he would join Wright in being named to the league’s all-rookie team.
With the NHL draft tentatively set for October and the OHL announcing its plans to return to play in December, Brochu will have spent over half a year off the ice by the time the 2020-21 season kicks off.
Considering the string of performances he put together before the pandemic, the goaltender, who will still be just 18 at the season’s start, has set a high standard for himself. He will likely be the starter in London, and with the condensed schedule, durability will be at a premium.
Brochu has wasted no time in preparing for his sophomore year. He has been training with St. Clair College’s strength and conditioning coach, Rob Maggio, taking on a new workout regime and diet.
Even with the rinks closed, he has been able to develop his game, participating in Hockey Canada’s U20 Program of Excellence Goaltending Camp, as well as the National Junior Team Summer Development Camp, which both took place virtually this summer.
Brochu will fight for a spot on Team Canada at the 2021 World Juniors with highly-touted prospects such as Sebastian Cossa of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Dylan Garand of the Kamloops Blazers. The discussion of which goaltenders Canada will take to the tournament is always a highly contested one. There will more than likely be people who will write off the 5’11” kid that a year and a half ago was looking for a place to play his post-OHL Draft season.
But Brochu knows what he is capable of, and his goaltending coach Daren Machesney knows he will silence those who doubt him.
“Watching Brett for three years, he just keeps proving you wrong. People say things like he’s too small, but he just keeps proving them wrong.”