Hockey comes full circle for former NHLer Gilbert Brule
Diminutive forward anxious to finally play for Team Canada at Olympics
By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports
RIGA, LATVIA — A dozen years ago, Gilbert Brule missed a chance to represent his country at home in Vancouver at the 2006 world junior hockey championship.
He started the season in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but even if they had designs on loaning him to the Canadian national junior team, Brule would have been sidelined with a broken leg.
He had helped Canada win the under-18 World Cup in 2004, but he always wondered what it would be like to pull on a Canadian sweater at a major international event.
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The 31-year-old Brule will finally get that chance next week as a member of the Canadian men's Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"It's kind of amazing how things come full circle," the North Vancouver, B.C., native said with a smile at Canada's training camp.
He was one of the best teenaged players in the land back in 2006, winning the Jim Piggott Trophy as Western Hockey League rookie of the year and losing out on Canadian Hockey League honours to someone named Sidney Crosby.
The Pittsburgh Penguins chose Crosby first in the 2005 NHL draft, and after Brule's Quesnel Millionaires friend and teammate Carey Price went fifth to the Montreal Canadiens, Columbus selected Brule sixth.
He was small. But his lack of size didn't deter him from success against players his own age. Against men, that was another story.
Brule suffered a fractured sternum in his second NHL game after a crushing hit from Calgary Flames defenceman Roman Hamrlik. He returned six weeks later and was soon out again with the aforementioned broken leg.
The injuries mounted. There was a knee ailment, high-ankle sprain, abdominal problem and a concussion. Brule never did get on track as a pro.
"I was pretty small when I first went to the NHL," he said. "I was 18 and I hadn't developed physically yet. There were a lot of big boys out there and I can still feel that hit from Roman Hamrlik."
He bounced around for 10 seasons between Columbus, Edmonton and Phoenix as well as between the NHL and American Hockey League.
There were spurts of good play, but about the only memorable moment was one summer when Brule was in the car with his girlfriend at the time and they passed a hitchhiker in West Vancouver.
Brule was Bono's favourite Oiler
It was U2 frontman Bono. Brule never picked up hitchhikers, but this was an exception. Bono was thankful and invited Brule, who was playing for the Oilers at the time, to his concert in Edmonton the next evening.
Bono called Brule his favourite Oiler on the stage that night and U2 has never forgotten the hockey player's act of kindness. He was invited and given a backstage pass to U2's concert at B.C. Place Stadium last summer.
But hockey was another matter. After a stretch of promotions and demotions by the Coyotes in 2013, Brule announced his retirement on Jan. 1, 2014. He was depressed and needed time away from the game.
"It's kind of hard to explain how I was feeling at the time," he said. "I was going up and down between the NHL and the American Hockey League. I felt I was having success in the AHL and I was hoping to get a better opportunity with Phoenix and I didn't.
"I was getting tired of going back and forth and not getting an opportunity to play, even though I had NHL experience.
'I still had the drive to play'
He began to clear his mind and feel better after daily hikes on the Seymour and Cypress mountains in North Vancouver. He realized he missed the game and started to train for a return.
An opportunity to play in Russia came his way that May and now he has enjoyed four solid seasons in Europe.
"Taking that time off to get my head straight and change my mindset and train hard again to come over to Russia," he said. "I still had the drive to play.
"Coming to Russia has been an awesome change for me. I've had the opportunity to play a lot and to play in all kinds of situations. As an import player, I'm usually on the top line and top power-play unit."
He'll get a similar opportunity with the Canadian Olympic team, although head coach Willie Desjardins has moved him from centre to right wing. With the way the Canadian defence can move the puck, Brule can expect to be on the receiving end of some stretch passes.
"I don't mind one bit," Brule said. "When you are given an opportunity like this you come in and do what's asked of you."