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Person to Watch: T.J. Brennan
Skating from SJ to the NHL
By Cynthia Marone

In seventh grade, T.J. Brennan was given an assignment to research a career he wanted. When he chose hockey player, his teacher told him that wasn’t a real job because it was nearly impossible to become a professional athlete. That teacher is eating her words now that Brennan, 23, is playing professional hockey for the Buffalo Sabres.

“I said, ‘How can you tell me to not pursue what I really want to do?’” Brennan recalls. That determination is what has propelled the defenseman from Moorestown High School to a spot in the National Hockey League (NHL). Though he’s only getting partial ice time now, Brennan is determined to prove his ability to help his team. He has a lifetime of experience in fighting for what he wants.

“TJ started out playing street hockey with all his friends when he was 7 or 8 years old, and then he progressed into Rollerblades,” says his father, Terrence, who lives in Rancocas. “He loved it and wanted to progress into ice skates, but he was the fourth of five children, and the only ice time available was at 5 am Saturday and Sunday mornings. We weren’t real anxious to get up at 4 am to go, and we weren’t sure he was that committed.”

His parents finally relented when T.J. was 11 and let him join an ice hockey team.

“I had 5 am practices and my dad said, ‘If I have to come in and wake you twice, you’re not playing anymore,’” says T.J. “So I would always make sure I was up and ready to go before he came in.

“School wasn’t exactly my forte,” he says. “I was really active and into sports, and pretty good at them. I was a lucky kid. My parents gave me the opportunity to play all the sports I wanted to, and I had three older sisters who were really athletic. I always had a ball in my hand – playing baseball or throwing the football around or playing basketball. Once I started playing ice hockey, I just took off.”

When he was a senior in high school, T.J. was given the chance to play junior hockey in Canada. “That was the best opportunity for me to pursue my dream – to go and play in the best junior league in the world,” he says. “There was no question about it. It was the best chance to get seen by scouts at the highest level you could: the NHL.”

“You just know when your kids are focused on something different,” says Terrence. “He was never going to go to college and study all the time as long as he had this on his mind – he was totally engrossed in the sport. He decided to do his senior year in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He went to high school every day and played hockey. For a 17-year-old kid to go 2,000 miles away from home, it’s special for him to focus like he did.”

“Looking back now,” says T.J., “it seems a little scary to put all your eggs in one basket when you’re so young. But being goal-oriented and persistent is what probably helped me the most. There was no way someone was going to get in my way, but it was definitely an adjustment period. I had to get used to new guys, a new coach and still try to finish high school. Being exposed to the highest level of hockey opened my eyes and lot of new doors.”

In the 2006-07 season, T.J. played with the St. John’s Fog Devils and recorded 16 goals and 25 assists in 68 games. He was named the league’s defensive rookie of the year.

“That was technically my draft year, when I turned 18 and became eligible for the NHL draft,” he says. “I had a really good season. I got drafted by the Sabres that summer.”

Drafted 31st in the second round, T.J. signed a three-year, entry-level contract that began in the 2009-10 season. “It’s different than other sports. Even though you get drafted, you don’t necessarily make the team. Sometimes it’s a longer development process. So I went back to junior for two more years, and then I was eligible to play in the minor league system.”

After spending two seasons playing for the Portland Pirates [which became the Rochester Americans] in the American Hockey League (AHL), T.J. finally got his big break last season. “I was finally called up to the Sabres, and a lot of weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “My dream is definitely coming true, and it’s nice to get the recognition that you finally made it after such a long journey.”

During this year’s NHL lockout, T.J. continued to play for Rochester. “It’s one of these things that’s definitely frustrating not being in the NHL and getting a shot when you think you deserve it, but you can’t control it. Luckily I had a good season in the AHL, and I was able to play there. In some ways that helped me. I just learned to be ready in case it started up again. Now I’m getting my shot.”

T.J. sees wearing number 33 – the number the Sabres assigned him – as a good omen. “Number three is our family number, so 33 is a good sign,” he explains. “My position, offensive defenseman, has the responsibility of playing offense and defense. It’s a lot of accountability, and through these first three years in the minors I’ve been learning that and trying to grow up as a player and a person. I’m trying to crawl my way into the line-up now and get back to work. I’m confident in myself, and I’ll be ready for any opportunities to go in there and help the team out and help them win.”

Growing up a Flyers fan, Brennan points to Eric Lindros as one of his favorite players. “He liked physical play and did whatever he had to do to win,” he says. “I also liked Dan McGillis who had a really good shot. I try to model my game after them. Of course I’m always a Flyers fan at heart – I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But I’ve always been a huge fan of hockey and respected the game. The Flyers had my heart first, but as a Sabre, our goal as a team is to make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.”

For young hockey players with hopes of making it to the NHL, T.J. has one piece of advice: “At the end of the day there will always be things that will get in your way, but you can never let those roadblocks keep you from getting where you want to go. Professional sports is an amazing job. Coming from South Jersey to get where I am today is a cool story, and I’m proud of it.”

April 2013
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