SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Paul Braun grew up northwest of Mankato in the small, rural Minnesota town of Nicollet, so he didn’t grow up playing hockey.
In fact, he doesn’t know how to skate, so every time his son, Justin Braun, walked into a rink as a kid, Paul’s advice was the same: “Smell the popcorn.”
“The first thing you smell when you go into any arena, Xcel Energy Center or wherever, is the popcorn,” Paul Braun said Sunday. “Smell the popcorn. To me, it means, ‘Take it all in.’ I want him to always remember that smell for the day when he’s done playing hockey.”
The elder Braun nearly spilled all of his popcorn inside the Shark Tank on Saturday night when he watched his 29-year-old boy snipe a tying goal in an eventual San Jose Sharks victory during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Born in Vadnais Heights and a standout at White Bear Lake High School, Justin Braun is becoming quite the story this series. Part of a shutdown defense pair with well-respected partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic tasked all postseason with neutralizing the opponent’s best forwards, Braun was on the ice 15 minutes with Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby on Saturday.
But not known for his offense, Braun suddenly possesses the Sharks’ hot stick. He has scored goals in consecutive games for the first time in his 412-game career. Not bad for a guy with 13 regular-season goals who had scored once in his first 43 playoff games. It’s why his phone has been blowing up lately with group texts from giddy buddies “saying nonsense.”
“Get a couple goals, and it feels like you’re playing above yourself,” Braun said. “I’m just happy I can finally chip in offensively. A lot of other guys have done a lot of heavy lifting to get us here.”
Braun’s goals have come after learning before Game 1 that his wife Jessie’s father, former NHLer Tom Lysiak, lost his battle with leukemia.
That’s part of the reason tears came to Paul’s eyes when Justin scored Saturday.
First, Paul felt blessed to be in the arena. A teacher at Jefferson Community School — an Uptown Minneapolis-area school he describes as “rich in culture and diversity” where 92 percent of lunches are free or reduced — Paul was conflicted as to whether he should attend Games 3 and 4.
The student body has a field trip to Como Zoo on Monday, and Tuesday is the final day before school’s out for the summer.
But Principal Bridget Hall wouldn’t hear of it.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to go [to San Jose]. You’ve got to go,’ ” Braun said.
Paul then thought about how far Justin had come since going to two state tournaments with White Bear Lake.
“His teammates on Green Bay [of the United States Hockey League] had tons and tons of offers, and Justin only had one college offer,” Paul said of Justin, a 2007 seventh-rounder who played four years at Massachusetts-Amherst.
And Paul thought of Lysiak and his family.
“Tommy was the character of all characters, and playing through Tommy’s illness [and death], this has really been hard for Justin,” Paul Braun said. “Justin is a real softie. Family is so important to him. He’s so good to his brothers. He’s got a wonderful wife. I always joke, I don’t know if he should be playing this rough game because he’s a softhearted soul.”
A long day of stress
Braun found out that his father-in-law died the morning of Game 1. It devastated him that he couldn’t be there for his wife, an accomplished chef whom he met on a blind date. After the Sharks lost Game 1, Braun was hard on himself and said he needed to do a better job focusing after playing a part in Pittsburgh’s first two goals.
“When you’re out there on the ice, you want to pretty much shut your brain off and just play,” Braun said. “When there are other things creeping in, that’s when you’re going to be a little slow on plays and making reads.”
Braun said it was a long day full of stress.
“A stage like that and how fast [the Penguins] are, you can’t be mentally slow. That’s what happened,” he said. “You felt slow and you want to be there for your family and you can’t, and it eats at you.”
In a cool gesture, between Games 2 and 3 one of San Jose’s owners, Rudy Staedler, had an extra seat on his private plane. On his way back to California on Thursday morning, Staedler gave Braun a lift by detouring from Pittsburgh to Atlanta for Lysiak’s funeral.
Later that night, Braun flew back to San Jose with his wife and 4 ½-month-old daughter, Madison. On Saturday, Lysiak’s wife, Melinda, and Braun’s parents, Paul and Carol Reamer, also joined.
So the family’s all together during an especially tough time as Braun fights through the grief.
“You’ve got the distraction factor [coming to the rink], but you still go home and have that hurt,” Braun said. “You look at your wife’s eyes and you see the pain. But getting the win was a good escape for me and a good escape for them last night.”
In fact, one of Paul’s other two boys — recently graduated St. Cloud State women’s hockey equipment manager Bryan Braun — had to hold Pops down as he celebrated during the game.
Paul couldn’t be prouder of Justin, and fittingly, he is making sure to smell the popcorn himself.
“This could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Paul said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s surreal. I always said to Justin, ‘Just smile and do the best you can,’ and here he is playing for the Stanley Cup.
“Brent Burns was Justin’s favorite player when he played for the Wild. I used to take him to the games because he had to see ‘Burnsie.’ Now they share a locker side by side. I think the other day, Burnsie referred to Justin as ‘Little Man.’
“I can’t believe this.”