DETROIT — Did you know Damien Brunner is one of the leading goal-scorers in the NHL? No? That’s OK. Until someone told him the other night, Brunner didn’t realize it himself.
“I am?” he said.
He is. He has 10 goals in 19 games for the Detroit Red Wings, tied for seventh in the league, four off the lead. But it has been a blur coming out of nowhere – Switzerland, specifically, where they play two games a week, maybe three, and ride a bus around a little country.
“I have to be honest with you,” Brunner said with a laugh. “Since I got here, I feel like I have no time to study the stats because I’m always sleeping and recovering and eating. I know that I have 10, but I have no idea who’s leading the league right now.”
Let’s look. Steven Stamkos entered Wednesday night in first place with 14 goals. No surprise. Next were James Neal and John Tavares with 13, Thomas Vanek and Patrick Marleau with 12, and James van Riemsdyk with 11.
Then there were seven players with 10. All were established NHLers – Brad Marchand, Patrick Kane, Andrew Ladd, David Clarkson, Matt Moulson, Jeff Carter – except Brunner, a 26-year-old who was never drafted and had never played a pro game in North America, at any level, even in the preseason, before jumping into the NHL and a crazy, compressed, post-lockout schedule.
For the moment, anyway, Brunner was ahead of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and everyone else. He’s too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year because he turned 26 before Sept. 15, the cutoff date, but he led all first-year players.
“It is amazing,” said Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who played with Brunner in Switzerland during the lockout and now plays on his line in Detroit. “He has that special touch. You don’t see him for a long, long time, and then all of a sudden he comes up there and scores a goal. He has that kind of sense to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Was Zetterberg talking about Brunner’s skill set or his career path? It’s a fascinating story about instant success that wasn’t instant at all, how a diamond in the rough is actually mined, and also how a perennial contender is trying to reinvent itself on the fly while surviving an injury epidemic.
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To Wings GM Ken Holland, there is a simple reason why players such as Brunner go undiscovered for so long: The NHL is the best men’s league in the world, and players become men at different ages. Some are men at 18. Most grow into men later – some much later, some in out-of-the-way places.
Brunner is listed at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds. Now. How much smaller was he at draft age? And how many scouts saw him playing in Switzerland? And who could project how he would develop in the Swiss league, let alone how he would play in the NHL one day?
Consider how all this came together. The Wings didn’t know about Brunner until Holland received a tip over email.
He went way back with a guy named Stacy Roest. Holland knew him from the Medicine Hat Tigers, when Roest was playing in junior and Holland was scouting in western Canada. He had signed Roest to his first pro contract and later promoted him to the NHL. They live on the same British Columbia lake in the offseason.
Roest had spent years playing in Switzerland and had an eye on his post-playing career. He wanted to become an NHL scout. In November 2011, he sent Holland a message to tell him that there was one player in the Swiss league that could play in the NHL – Damien Brunner.
Holland forwarded the email to his scouts, who went and saw him. They thought he was someone the Wings should consider. Brunner led the Swiss league in scoring in the regular season (24 goals and 60 points in 45 games) and playoffs (three goals and 14 points in 14 games) in 2011-12.
The Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs last year. Coach Mike Babcock headed over to scout the world championships before Holland did, so Holland told him to watch Brunner if he saw Switzerland. Babcock watched one Swiss game. He called Holland right away.
“You know what?” Babcock told Holland. “I like him. I think he can play in the NHL.”
Holland joined Babcock, and the two watched Brunner some more. They saw that he could skate. They saw that he knew where to go to score goals. But they didn’t know if he could play in the NHL.
“You don’t really know because he’s 5-11 and he’s not a big, thick, strong, hard player,” Holland said. “Coming over here, the ice is smaller. There are bigger guys. It’s more physical. You never know how a guy is going to adjust.”
This isn’t quite like when the Wings found European draft gems like Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999), Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998) or Tomas Holmstrom (10th round, 1994), either. Other teams scouted Brunner at the world championships. Other teams saw the same thing. Other teams were interested in signing him as a free agent, too.
It came down to Detroit and Tampa Bay – and Holland and Holland’s protege, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, the Wings great who just so happened to be Brunner’s father’s favorite player. Brunner said his talk with Yzerman was the “most impressive meeting” he had ever had. He called Yzerman “awesome.” He said it took “courage” to tell him no.
Brunner signed a one-year, $925,000 deal with Detroit. Why the Wings? They had a good track record with European players. The coach had seen him play, not just the GM or the scouts, and it was the coach, the man who would actually control the ice time, offering an opportunity in the top six. He liked to shoot first, and the Wings had playmakers like Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Better yet, he was a right-handed shot, the Wings didn’t have a right-handed shot in their top six at that point, and Zetterberg and Datsyuk are left-handed centermen.
“It was a tough choice,” said Brunner, whose stall sits directly across from a framed photo of Yzerman at Joe Louis Arena. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think [Yzerman] can think bad about this organization.”
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The Red Wings needed Brunner. They have made the playoffs for 21 straight seasons, winning four Stanley Cups in that time. But inevitable attrition has taken so many of their great players – Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, on and on – and they haven’t had high draft picks to replenish their high-end talent.
Zetterberg, knowing he would replace Lidstrom as captain this season, invited Brunner to live with him for a couple of weeks before training camp was supposed to open in September. He showed Brunner around, helped him get comfortable in Detroit. When the lockout began, Brunner headed back to Switzerland. As it dragged on, he teased Zetterberg with texts: “Hey, we need a good centerman.”
Eventually, it wasn’t a joke anymore. Zetterberg joined Brunner, and they developed chemistry playing for Zug. Brunner was on pace to lead the Swiss league in scoring for the second straight season – at a time when NHLers like Zetterberg, Kane and Joe Thornton were over there. He had 25 goals and 57 points in 33 games.
Brunner had no time to adjust when the lockout ended. But at least he had spent a little time in Detroit already, and he had already been playing with Zetterberg. And he had the coach on his side.
The easiest part has been offense. Even though the rink is smaller and the guys are bigger and the game is faster, Brunner has tried to do the same things he did in Switzerland. He has played not only in the top six at even strength, but on the point on the power play. He has shown patience and poise with the puck. He has shown a quick release.
Turnovers have been a problem, and so has defense. Brunner has made mistakes. Bad ones. Like most Europeans who come to North America, he is used to circling and has to learn to stop and start. He has to learn the strict structure and defensive coverages of the NHL game. But Babcock has stuck with him.
“Since I came here, they gave me the chance to show that I can play at this level,” Brunner said. “It’s not like they put me out there and after one period they said, ‘Oh, that’s not good.’ We lost our first game, 6-0. I mean, it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ So it’s about getting chances and then at some point then you have to show something.”
A couple things to keep in mind: One, Babcock has had little choice. The Wings, already thinned, have been decimated by injuries. Two, Babcock has had to adjust. The Wings aren’t the veteran team they once were, and they need inexperienced players to gain experience, and that won’t happen if they are buried on the bench after making mistakes.
But Brunner has also earned his opportunity. He has shown something. He isn’t physical, but he isn’t afraid. He will go to the hard areas. He isn’t good defensively, but he’s listening and trying.
And of course …
“He’s got 10 goals,” Babcock said. “If he gave me nothing on the other end and if he didn’t work at it and if when you met with him he wasn’t conscientious about what was going on, you wouldn’t [play him]. But he is. He’s a guy that’s getting better all the time.
“I’m always giving him a hard time about stopping on defense and knowing where his guy is. But pretty soon he’ll learn to stop and start. It’s just a matter of time. When you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing your whole life, it’s not going to be fixed in a week.”
This is a different life for Brunner. The hardest part – even harder than defense – is the schedule and travel. He is playing constantly, traveling constantly, more and farther than ever before.
He never played more than 50 games in a regular season in Switzerland. He has already played 52 games between the Swiss league and the NHL this season, and the Wings have 30 regular-season games to go. No wonder he retreats to his hotel room or his apartment in suburban Detroit, where he lives alone, and doesn’t have time to study the stat sheet. The obvious question: Can he keep it up?
But there it is, in black-and-white – 10 goals entering Wednesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Kings, right there with the best, at least for now. Brunner has never been to L.A. before for any reason, let alone to play the Stanley Cup champions. All he can do is smile.
“It’s exciting,” he said.
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