Connor Brown has a great pedigree but humble beginnings.
The son of a minor-pro hockey player and the brother of four-year OHLer, the Leafs draft pick stands out because of where he started from.
Brown was drafted by the Erie Otters in the 13th round of the midget draft. The Leafs waited until the sixth round to choose him at 156 in 2012.
Brown’s 43 goals and 123 points in 65 games don’t just lead the OHL. His point total betters those of the QMJHL and WHL leaders which makes the 20-year-old Toronto native the number one major junior point-getter in North America.
Stay with me on this: hockey players, athletes of all kinds, revel in slights. Michael Jordan used the name of Leroy Smith to check into hotel rooms. Smith was the guy who beat out Jordan for a spot on his high school basketball team. Wayne Gretzky and Doug Gilmour used knocks about their size to motivate them to work harder.
But Brown, an articulate and thoughtful person, says he doesn’t need to hold a grudge.
“I don’t know that I think about proving anyone wrong. I went in the 13th round and so I thought coming into the OHL, I have to work harder than other people to play in this league,” he said. “It was the same story when I got drafted in the sixth round by the Leafs. I was thrilled to go to Toronto but I knew I had to work harder than someone who was drafted in the first round to get a contract.”
Brown secured his deal in November and has done nothing to persuade Leafs’ management they made the wrong decision. Still, the question remains, why did he go so late in both drafts?
The answer in both cases is size, or at the time a lack of it.
Brown is a hair under six feet and 175 pounds. But he weighed 120 pounds in his midget draft and about 150 when the Leafs chose him.
“When you’re 120 pounds teams are going to be skeptical,” Brown said of his better than never selection by the Otters.
“It was an issue of size when we drafted him,” said Leafs’ vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin. “(Scouting Director) Dave Morrison was high on the hockey sense, the compete level but you just worried about his size.”
Brown hasn’t spent much time flanking 17-year-old whiz kid Connor McDavid, at least not five-on-five so his point total hasn’t been overly influenced by the presence of the player sure to go first in the 2015 NHL draft. Brown leads major junior because he has done what he has said he would do: work on his game. Brown captained the Otters both this year and last and led the team in points in each of his three seasons while scoring 25, 28 and 43 goals.
He credits Maple Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill with dramatically improving his speed.
“If you watch a game tape from my draft year my explosiveness, speed, edge work, every part of my skating is a lot better and all the credit for that goes to Barb,” he said. “I was a bit too hunched over and losing a bit of power in my legs. She hasn’t shortened my stride but she has made me more concerned about how quickly I repeat my strides.”
Brown’s father Dan captained the Western Mustangs and played pro hockey in Europe. His brother Jeff played for four years in the OHL with Oshawa and Windsor. Connor Brown says he learned to think the game largely from his dad but forged his sense of competition facing off with his brother.
“Me and my brother the competitiveness is in our blood,” he said. “When we played one-on-one in our backyard rink I either got good quickly or I wasn’t allowed to play with him.”
Brown can turn pro with the Marlies next season. When he does, the countdown and the comparisons will begin.
From 1999-2000 to 2009-2010, the OHL scoring title has been won by players who would be NHL stars, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and by players such as Rob Schremp, Corey Locke and Nathan Robinson, who would never make the grade as NHLers.
The trick, Brown believes is both simple but excruciatingly difficult. He has to stay the course and continue to redouble his effort at every level.
“I think a lot of the times, it’s just speculation, but maybe you kind of fall off and think because you’re having such a good year in the Ontario League, the work kind of stops,” he said. “The mindset that has got me to this point has carried through. I know the work is just beginning.”
“His thinking, that’s what will set Connor apart,” Poulin said. “His skating will continue to improve as he gets stronger but his ability to think the game, that’s what will make the other pieces work.”