Blake McLaughlin remembers his longtime pal Ben Brinkman texting him and swearing him to secrecy about a year ago.
Brinkman had the opportunity for immediate playing time on a young Gophers defensive unit if he skipped his senior year of high school at Edina. McLaughlin, already set to join the Gophers as a freshman, gave some pretty obvious guidance.
“‘You kidding me? You’re twice the size of me. You could eat me in one bite,’” the 160-pound McLaughlin said to his 6-1, 210-pound friend. “I was like, ‘Yeah, probably do it.’ ”
Brinkman took that advice, using his physical strength and outgoing personality to quickly find his place on a Division I hockey team. He didn’t even turn 18 until two days before the season’s first game, but Brinkman has never been like the tag-along kid brother to this Gophers team, thanks to established buddies like McLaughlin and ex-Edina teammate Sammy Walker.
“Knowing people who are here definitely helped out,” Brinkman said. “It didn’t feel like I was just leaving all my friends to go to some school far away. It’s also, like, 15 minutes from my house.”
That feeling of being at home might be why Brinkman has experienced an “eerie” problem-free start in college hockey, according to Gophers coach Bob Motzko.
“He has far exceeded any of the things that we [expected]. He has not had a bad day since he’s been here,” Motzko said, adding Brinkman keeps surprising with his continual improvement and no hiccups. “There are times when he’s our most steady defenseman as a senior in high school.”
Motzko said he doesn’t even remember that Brinkman is the youngest member of the Gophers. But had Brinkman stayed in high school, he likely could have followed in Walker’s footsteps as Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey. Instead, Brinkman said, he and his family began two years ago discussing the possibility of starting college early. He took two or three extra classes that summer and then benefited from his school adding another period to its schedule his junior year to earn enough credits to graduate.
The Brinkmans and first-year coach Motzko deliberated if the then-17-year-old could handle being alone for the first time, playing with players who are sometimes six years older than him after spending a season or two in junior hockey.
Brinkman grappled with the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind a tight-knit team without a state championship.
They seemed to have made the right decision, as Brinkman has played in every game so far for the Gophers, scoring one goal with five assists playing mainly with junior Tyler Nanne on the second pairing.
Motzko called Brinkman a “beast” who can go from a laid-back guy off the ice to a hypercompetitive animal on it. Assistant coach Garrett Raboin said Brinkman always seems immersed in the moment. Mistakes don’t faze him. Teammates’ scoring makes him jump up and down with happiness.
“It’s fun to have his youthfulness and energy in the room,” Raboin said. “Even the staff, to come to the rink every day is fun especially when you see Brinks because he’s always smiling.”
But even Raboin said he has caught some of the older players rolling their eyes at that puppy-dog enthusiasm sometimes. Brinkman admitted to having to learn basic adult responsibilities like managing his money, doing laundry and not doing “stupid stuff.” The older players might help keep some of that in check by keeping Brinkman humble.
Senior captain Tyler Sheehy said the upperclassmen will sometimes rib Brinkman for singing along to throwback songs in the locker room, asking him how he knows the lyrics when he should be too young to remember. The same happens when referencing childhood TV shows of different generations.
Both Sheehy and Nanne, though, said they couldn’t have imagined doing what Brinkman has done with such ease. Motzko and Raboin have coached only a handful of players as early starters, but most went on to solid college careers and became NHL prospects.
This is Brinkman’s draft year, and NHL Central Scouting ranks him as the 79th skater in North America, possibly as a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round candidate. Yet despite his track record, Brinkman said he is not overeager to move on to the next stage of his career.
“I would have left after my freshman year of high school if I was thinking that way,” Brinkman said. “I had three great years of high school. I enjoyed it a lot. But I felt I was ready to move on, and this has been a good fit for me.
“So I’m ready to stay here as long as I feel comfortable.”