‘I’m sure he wanted to be a Cale Makar’: Inside TJ Brodie’s reimagining

This article was written by Gary Mok, who is part of the Professional Hockey Writers Association x To Hockey With Love Mentorship Program. This program pairs aspiring writers with established association members across North America to create opportunities for marginalized people who have not traditionally been published on larger hockey-covering platforms.

To Hockey With Love is a weekly newsletter covering a range of hockey topics – from scandals of the week to critical analysis of the sport.


One March afternoon between games, TJ Brodie laughed when asked about his first year as a professional hockey player.

« The main thing was how little I knew about defense, » he said. « Throughout junior, what I really focused on was moving the puck and the offensive side of the game. »

The offensive side of the game is why many people tune in to the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, but the adrenaline rushes that come from those viewings are rarely due to Brodie.

William Nylander with the puck on his stick is Red Bull Energy Drink. Mitch Marner killing a power penalty is knocking down three shots of espresso. And then there’s the league’s reigning MVP, and the 80-point captain, and the kid from Scarborough whose mouth is just as aggressive as his forecheck.

And behind the Leafs’ caffeinated forwards, Brodie is practically their exact opposite, someone who peddles the lesser-appreciated art of anti-fun: stick checks on stick grips, GOOD on flair. It’s reliable, efficient, pleasantly boring.

Less energy drink, more comfort food.

It’s your grandmother’s beef stroganoff, my mother’s fried rice.

Not so long ago, his game resembled that of his more successful teammates. These days, the most radical thing about him is probably that he has not one, but two first names.

So how did Thomas James Brodie go from energy drink to comfort food?


« His core strength when we drafted him was his offensive game and his skating, » Tod Button, then the Calgary Flames’ director of scouting, said in 2010.

Button could have described the current Cale Makar, the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman with inhuman skating ability. Instead, he explained why his team drafted a young prospect named TJ Brodie two years prior.

Brodie had broken into the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) as an offensive defenseman, collecting 50 points in 63 games in his post-draft season, followed by 56 points in 65 games (in addition to 15 points in 17 playoff games) the next day. year. All of Brodie’s focus on his offensive game had established him as a player to watch when he moved from the OHL to the American Hockey League (AHL) the following year.

« I remember him walking into the room, this lean, fit guy, » said Steve O’Rourke, one of Brodie’s coaches when the defenseman first joined the AHL affiliate. from Calgary to Abbotsford. « He had such high expectations that (we thought,) ‘Oh wow, this guy is going to come in, he’s going to lead the power play.' »

Brodie did more than just run the power play.

In his first professional season, Brodie led all Abbotsford defensemen in points. Even more impressive, his 34 points put him just one behind team leader Matt Keith, a forward who had played nine more AHL games than Brodie that year.

At 20, « he was probably our best offensive defenseman, » O’Rourke said.

His outsized impact on the AHL team led to his first NHL games, which his former Calgary Flames captain fondly remembers.

« (Brodie) had a great camp when he came in, » said Mark Giordano, Brodie’s two-time teammate with the Flames and Leafs. « He scored four or five goals in his first training camp (and) had very young games in the team. »

Although he was told to play mostly offside (if you haven’t heard, Brodie is a left-handed defenseman who plays comfortably on the right), he eventually flourished in Calgary playing alongside Giordano.

« It was a lot of fun playing with him, » said Giordano, who noted that he and Brodie thought about the game the same way.

In its early years, it was more of an energy drink than a comfort food.

« He’s got an elite skill, and that’s his skating, » O’Rourke said. “His ability to skate, (to) get out of trouble, (to) take the puck to the next level…created offense for everyone around him.

Believe it or not, his game also involved quite a bit of risk.

In O’Rourke’s words, Brodie was « a free spirit » who « came out (from junior) with that great skating, but a lot of nights that could get him in trouble. »

Brodie added: « The details and just the little things defensively, I had no idea. »


Today, no one would refer to Brodie as knowing little about defense or the details of the game.

In an in-depth analysis of his play published last fall, Cam Charron of Athleticism described Brodie’s game as « incredibly simple », « not very pretty », and « zero glitches ».

« I think now if you ask someone they would be considered more of a defensive guy, » Giordano said.

Brodie was once a player with raw, riskier offensive ingredients that turned out to be an “incredibly simple” meal. Kind of like comfort food.

And turning raw ingredients into real comfort food is no small feat. Legitimate comfort food should touch both nostalgia and certainty, a happy memory that can be reliably and repeatedly unlocked with taste buds. My comfort food is my mother’s fried rice.

It consists of diced onions, minced garlic, scrambled eggs, and their choice of protein (usually barbecue pork or spam). The secret ingredient isn’t the green onion from her garden, or a particular brand of oyster sauce, or the sesame oil that she only sprinkles on at the end.

Her key is that she duty use day-old white rice from the refrigerator (“The refrigerator sucks the moisture out of the rice,” she says).

But that means, if I want to make him fried rice myself, I always have to cook the rice at least a day ahead. I can’t make my comfort food on a whim; it takes intention.

Becoming comfort food for an NHL team, as Brodie did, took on a similar intent.

« I think you learn who you are and what you’re capable of, » Brodie said, describing how he came to understand the type of defender he needed to be. « Everyone should know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and you should play to your strengths. »

Not all players are capable of such self-reflection. Not every player can admit their strength shifted so quickly from having the puck on their stick to play without needing it at all (Brodie now considers his defensive stick his most valuable skill). Not all players are able to adapt, let alone reinvent themselves.

But Brodie isn’t all gamers.


O’Rourke, now associate coach of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, has worked with a number of defensemen who started like Brodie, all in flash and dash. Many of them do not have quite the same professional background.

« When he came along, I’m sure he wanted to be a Cale Makar, » O’Rourke said, « but when those moments don’t open up and people say to you, ‘Hey, maybe you can have more success as this piece next to Giordano. Are you ready to do this? Are you ready to change your identity?’ TJ, with his personality, his coachability, he saw that, he recognized that, he embraced that.

« We had a lot of good years, » Giordano recalled. “I had a lot of success offensively thanks to him. (I) could jump into the game and know he’s reliable there.

Jumping around the room with his skating was once Brodie’s bread and butter, but now he was the one who was reliable, the one who prevented all potential problems. It took him a long time to realize that was what he wanted to be.

« You learn that you don’t have to skip every shift and join the rush, » Brodie explained. « You have to pick your pitches and make sure no matter what happens that you’re on the defensive side of the puck (and) able to recover. »

Brodie’s desire to succeed replaced crutches to stay who he was. So he made sacrifices to transform himself on the ice into a closer facsimile of one of his hockey idols growing up: Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman.

« I think I was 7 when (Detroit) won their first Cup (in the 90s), » Brodie recalled, « I got to watch (Yzerman), I got to see him in person. And I just admired the type of player he was. He was skilled, but he was willing to do whatever it took to make the team successful. And if that meant not scoring as many goals or points , so that’s what he was willing to do.

Yzerman’s career and Brodie’s personality pushed the defenseman to reinvent himself on the ice, but age and experience also played a role.

Giordano saw this in Brodie and in himself.

« When you get older, I think you have to get rid of your ego to get points and stuff like that, » Giordano said. « If you can play very well defensively, you stay in the league for a long time. »

Brodie’s play was once all about charisma, bravado, adrenaline. Problem sometimes, but that was part of the package. Now he’s quiet, unassuming, probably boring. For a Maple Leafs blue line that has seen its fair share of mishaps and disasters over the years, perhaps perfection is boring.


Brodie doesn’t have a favorite food.

« I eat just about anything, I don’t really have a favorite, » he said.

Pressed to reveal a specific food that brings him comfort and joy, he talks about something else intentional.

« I’m not a picky eater, » he said. « (But) I try to keep a balanced diet. »

These last words come to mind. Because that’s exactly what my mom used to say whenever I overindulged in foods, like her fried rice, that I so often craved.

Trying to keep a balanced diet is good advice for living a healthy life. It could also be good advice for a team full of energy drinks and espresso shots – a team that may need some balance in their composition to achieve their ultimate goal.

« We’ve got enough guys up front and in D that are going to put the puck in the net, » Giordano said. « We have to keep him out. »

For these Leafs to win a Cup, or even a playoff round, they might need more of the player who learned the value of responsible, dependable hockey.

The player who learned to choose his spots. The player who knows his strengths and plays for them.

The player tries to keep a balanced diet, in hockey and in life.


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