Andrew Brunette, who played for the Wild at two different points of his career, has retired from the National Hockey League after 16 seasons and will begin his third stint with the organization as hockey ops advisor.
He will assist GM Chuck Fletcher in all aspects of the team’s hockey operations including scouting, free-agent signings and helping with the evaluation and development of prospects at all levels of the organization.
"I talked to a couple teams [about working for them], but I came to the decision my heart was in Minnesota," Brunette said by phone. "It just made sense to be here."
Brunette said the role will be defined as it goes along. He joins Darby Hendrickson, Brad Bombardir and Wes Walz as former Wild players that have been hired during the Fletcher regime.
"It's a real classy thing that they're keeping some of the ex-players around that helped build this franchise because we all have vying interests and feel part of this thing and feel we had a hand in the success we've had over the years," Brunette said.
Brunette first talked to Fletcher in November when the GM was curious as to what Brunette’s future plans would be. Fletcher made contact again a few days after the lockout ended.
“I hate that word retirement. I just don’t like that word,” Brunette said. “Taking the step is a little bit scary and the finality of not playing all of sudden hits you, like, ‘Woah, I can’t believe I’m done, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’”
Brunette, always self-deprecating about his slow skating, then began to laugh hard: “I guess you can say I skated to the decision not to play. That’s why it took me so long. It took awhile to get there, just like everything else I did.”
Brunette scored 268 goals and 733 points in 1,110 games. Brunette scored the second-most goals in Wild history (119), the second-most power-play goals (55), the fourth-most assists (202) and the fourth-most points (321), and played the fourth-most games (489).
He scored the most famous goal in Wild history – the series’ clinching goal against Colorado in the 2003 playoffs. That was the last goal Patrick Roy ever allowed.
“I don’t think Bruno was appreciated outside of real hockey people because his game was so subtle,” Ray Ferraro, Brunette’s teammate with the Atlanta Thrashers, said in an article I wrote last month.
"To play 1,000 games starting [at 22 years old] was all skill and durability and toughness without fighting -- but toughness to be able to withstand the punishment of where he played the game.
"And as a teammate, honestly, no better.
"He was an absolute rink rat. He loved being at the rink, he loved all the little games after practice. In Atlanta, he organized a 3-on-3 league after practice, and he was commissioner, and it was phenomenal. And he left a legacy of fantasy football leagues on every team he's been on."
Brunette said last month he would look to work for a team because of his competitive drive and love for feeling part of a team
Knowing Brunette, Ferraro believes the first part of retirement will be difficult. Ferraro remembers sitting in the stands at a Vancouver Canucks home game with his wife, Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato, the first month of his retirement in 2002.
"They came out of the tunnel, and the excitement in the building and the music playing, I started to cry, like overcome with emotion of the fact I'd never get to do that again," Ferraro said. "And I think Bruno would be the same way."
In fact, Brunette said he couldn't watching the first three or four games of this NHL season because the emotions were too deep.
Brunette said he will look back most fondly at the "friendships of the guys I played with. That, to me, was most special of all of it. ... That's what hockey's all about."
This was the story I wrote on Brunette when he played his 1,000th game in Feb. 2011
It was December 2000, and the Atlanta Thrashers were in Phoenix. In the waning seconds, coach Curt Fraser pulled his goalie -- with a three-goal deficit.
Ray Ferraro and Andrew Brunette, each already minus-2, hopped the boards for a faceoff.
“Bruno skates over to me like he’s going to give me some brilliant piece of advice,” Ferraro recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘We’re down by three Bruno with 20 seconds left. There’s no advice at this point other than kick a field goal.’
“He goes, ‘Shoot it in the corner and I’ll fall on it. This way nothing else bad can happen.’ I did everything I could not to laugh while taking the faceoff. I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God. He’s the best.’”
Ferraro, who retired in 2002, played with hundreds of teammates during a 1,300-plus-game NHL career.
“Bruno’s my favorite teammate,” Ferraro says bluntly. “I don’t know that I played with too many more players that had the ability to get along with everybody. When you’re on a team, it’s like any other workplace. Not everybody loves each other.
“But everybody loves Bruno -- always. He’s just a good guy, he loves to laugh, he’s just got a fun way about him. If he was just the class clown, it would sell him way short. He’s utterly committed to what he does.”
A rink rat by all sense of the term, Brunette, 37, will walk into the Wild’s rink Tuesday night to play the Los Angeles Kings. It’ll be the 1,000th time he suits up in an NHL uniform, of which he’ll be honored before the Feb. 9 game against Colorado with his parents, Dan and Sue, wife, Lorie, brother, Jamie (sister Kerry is unable to attend), and several pals, like Ferraro, expected to attend.
Over his underrated 250-goal, 688-point career, Brunette’s been known for many things: Soft hands, uncanny vision to find passing lanes, amazing ability to protect the puck behind the net and wreak havoc in front of it. Oh, and the fact he probably runs faster than he skates.
He’s a sports fanatic “24 hours a day.” His famed “Bru Cats” finally won one of his team’s fantasy football leagues this season “after years of heartbreak.”
But for those who’ve had the privilege of sharing a locker room with Brunette, they first think of his laugh.
“You can always tell when he’s in the room,” chuckled defenseman Nick Schultz. “You can hear him from the training room all the way to the equipment room. He loves his own jokes. If he tells a joke, he’s probably laughing the loudest.”
Added captain Mikko Koivu, “I laugh when he laughs.”
How would you describe Brunette’s laugh?
“Booming. Infectious. Impossible not to laugh at a story if he’s laughing at it. You don’t even really need to be in on it,” Ferraro said.
Brunette simply loves the game, and not just playing it. Ask his fondest memory during an impressive 15-year career, it’s not the big games or the big goals, like ending Patrick Roy’s career with a 2003 Game 7 clincher for the Wild against Colorado.
“I love being around the guys,” Brunette said. “That’s what makes it fun – the dinners, the laughs, the jokes, the plane rides, the camaraderie.
“We’re playing a game. You don’t work hockey. You play hockey.”
“Wonderful guy, wonderful teammate, wonderful hockey player. Wish he was faster.”
When Brunette’s career does finally end, that will undoubtedly be his epitaph.
He knows it, he accepts it and in typical “Bruno” fashion, he laughs at it – loudly.
“Part of it is, you know, I guess, part of it is, well, it’s true,” Brunette says, smiling. “I see myself skate sometimes and kind of laugh. It’s just the way it is.
“It doesn’t matter how well I do, as soon as I play a bad game, it’s my skating. It always comes back to that, even at 37. I’ve basically lived it my whole life.”
In Calgary two weeks ago, nobody laughed harder than Brunette when Ferraro came up to him and said, “Next to Brad Marsh, you’re the slowest guy ever to get to 1,000 games.”
As Ferraro says, “I loved going with Bruno in skating drills. You always looked like you had a little hop in your step if you were going with Bru.”
Again, Brunette’s hardly offended. Heck, he makes the same self-deprecating jokes. He met his now-wife at age 12 during public skating in his hometown of Sudbury.
“You had to find a girl and hold her hand for a lap. It was the longest lap of her life,” Brunette said, laughing.
But all kidding aside, how is it possible for a player who allegedly can’t skate to function so well in such a skating league?
“Because I don’t find the games fast. I think I saw the game probably differently than other guys. I thought fast and had a belief in what I did in certain areas,” Brunette said, referring to around, behind and in front of the net.
“If I got the puck in certain areas, I felt I was as good as anybody. So I never doubted myself despite the skating. And I was strong-minded over it because it’s easy to crack.”
That’s because it’s constantly mentioned, talked about, written about.
But as far back as when Brunette played peewee in Valley East, his then-coach, Jim McLoughlin cautioned him, “There’s going to be a time where people are going to say, ‘You can’t skate. Don’t believe them because you’ve got so many other things you do well.’ It was almost a warning at 13.”
What did McLoughlin see?
“The smartest kid I’ve ever coached,” said McLoughlin, now the convener of minor hockey (novice division) in Valley East. “His hockey sense was extraordinary. He would make plays on the ice that were way beyond his years. His peripheral vision, his control with the puck, his passes, his hands were so awesome.”
So if you’re looking for somebody to win a skating race, you’ve got the wrong guy.
“But,” Ferraro said, “If you’re looking for somebody who knows how to play, then he’s the guy you want on your team. He sees the game incredibly well. He’s got tremendous offensive instincts. In the offensive zone, the rink could be 12 feet long for Bruno.”
As Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, Brunette’s first pro coach with AHL Portland, said, “Hash marks in, down by the goal line, around the net, blue paint, he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. He may not be an efficient skater. But when he has the puck, he’s extremely efficient, trust me.
“There’s no one better protecting pucks. Once he has it, you’re not getting it back from him. He always laughs, ‘You’re not getting around my big butt.’”
Brunette has been defying odds since the moment he was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1993. Despite leading the Ontario Hockey League with 162 points for Owen Sound, his skating meant Brunette was drafted after 173 others.
But Trotz believed in him, signed him to an AHL contract and shuttled him back and forth between the AHL and East Coast Hockey League. One year, Brunette said, he was up and down with Washington “like 17 times. I was lucky to have Barry at that time as a coach because it does get old.”
“Each time he had more staying power,” Trotz said, though.
Brunette ultimately followed Trotz and Caps GM David Poile to expansion Nashville, where he scored the first goal in Predators’ history. Then, onto expansion Atlanta.
“For some reason he’s as unappreciated by his management until he leaves than anybody I’ve ever known,” Ferraro said. “In Atlanta, they let him go as a free agent. At the time, I talked to [then-GM] Don Waddell about it and I said, ‘You can’t let him go.’ He was asking for $1.1 million.
“They let him go and brought in Lubos Bartecko because he was faster. Well, I mean, that was a colossal loss for Atlanta.”
Sound familiar? That was the same reason the Wild chose Alexandre Daigle over Brunette after the lockout.
“Minnesota certainly wasn’t better. They just looked better in the skills contest,” Ferraro quipped.
Brunette was eventually brought back as a free agent in 2008, and frankly could be moving on after this season. He certainly wants to keep playing and feels like he can still play at a high level.
“There’s no way that Bruno’s career ends after this year. Like, no way,” Ferraro said. “He can play up and down your lineup, he’s an awesome guy in the locker room, he’s got 1,000 games of experience and he’s affordable.
“And you won’t realize until you get him there how good he is.”
Even though he can’t skate.