How does one go from growing up in a small city in Western Canada, playing hockey in a rink where it used to rain on players and fans inside the rink every spring, to holding down a high level job with the NHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers?
Well, just do what Dauphin native Brad Church did, and you should be fine.
At the age of 17, Church left home to pursue his dream of playing hockey for a living, and never looked back. Twenty years later, and it seems as though Church has lived several lifetimes – going from a junior hockey player to a professional one, from a professional coach to his current position as the Chief Operating Officer for the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League.
It’s a journey where he learned something every step of the way, including his first step as a 16-year-old, when he made the choice between playing in the Western Hockey League, or remaining in Dauphin one more year.
“I wasn’t drafted in the (WHL) Bantam draft, so I went to a couple of rookie camps in Prince Albert and Swift Current,” said Church from his office in Portland, Maine. “And I had an opportunity to stay as a 16 year old with the Swift Current Broncos, but my parents really wanted me to get one more year of high school under my belt before I left home.”
So Church tried out for MJHL’s Dauphin Kings, and not only made the team, but helped them win a league championship in the 1992-93 season, scoring 38 points in 45 games, playing against some players that were four years older than he was.
Playing out of the old DMCC Arena, Church said he learned a lot in his first year of junior hockey on a team with lots of locals playing a prominent part.
“I was much younger than my teammates that year – Kirby Law and I both made the team as 16 year olds,” said Church. “I was able to stay home, attend school, and play hockey for the Kings.
“I have so many good memories of that season – playing for Lyle Stokotelny and Bruce Helgason, they were both local guys, friends of my parents, and Bruce was a teacher at the high school. There was a real local flavour to the team and I learned a lot from these guys.”
Church said some of the players he remembers skating along side that year include Bowsman native Pat Mullin and Dauphin product Brian Hlady.
“These are the kind of guys who would come to practice after work, and set the example for the team,” said Church. “Their leadership was evident as a young player, and you could see how much they loved to play.”
After winning the MJHL title “as an underdog” and falling to the SJHL’s Flin Flon Bombers in a six-game ANAVET Cup classic, Church set his sights on the moving up to the WHL and the Prince Albert Raiders – where he excelled. In his rookie season Church scored 33 times and finished with 53 points in 71 games. In his draft year, Church overcame some early injury issues to score 50 points in 62 games, and in his final year he really caught fire, scoring 42 goals and 88 points in 69 games. He also lit it up that year in the playoffs, finishing with 35 points in 18 playoff games.
“Heading to Prince Albert was a life experience in itself, when you leave home, move in with a billet family, and start a new school,” said Church. “I went out there pretty ‘green’, and didn’t really understand what was going on around me in my first year.
“I had (head coach) Donn Clark in my first year, and he really pushed me, and I respected that a ton,” added Church. “And in turn, he gave me every opportunity to succeed. I had such good players around me – Denis Pederson, Shayne Toporowski, Steve Kelly, Paul Healey.
“We had a good team, and I had a couple of really good years.”
Church also was a late cut at tryouts for representing Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, and of course was a first-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals.
“I remember in my second year when the (NHL draft) ratings started to fly around, agents started calling, and that’s when I knew this is a great opportunity for me not only for the present, but for my future,” noted Church. “The whole experience of going through the draft, and then coming back for my final year of junior, where I had not only personal success, but the group was successful as well, was memorable.”
The Prince Albert Raiders were a loaded team in Church’s final two seasons with the likes of future No. 1 overall draft pick Chris Phillips, Shane Willis, Shane Hnidy, and later Roman Vopat and Curtis Brown. The Brandon Wheat Kings, though, countered with stars of their own, such as Bryan McCabe, Peter Schaefer, (former MJHL all-star/St. Boniface Saint, Cory Cyrenne, Wade Redden and (former St. Boniface Saints’ forward) Mike LeClerc.
These two teams met in two epic Eastern Division finals. Unfortunately for Church and the Raiders, the Wheat Kings seemed to have their number.
“We had a seven game series against Brandon the first year in the (East) final, and I remember Game 6 in Prince Albert was televised on TSN, and after we won we had to jump on a bus to play a couple of nights later in Brandon, and the TSN trucks were following us to Brandon, and they were changing their programming to televise Game 7.
TSN aired many junior games that year as the NHL lockout left a gaping hole on their network.
“The next year, it was another battle between Prince Albert and Brandon,” noted Church. “I remember they loaded up and the deadline and so did we, so both teams were loaded – we just couldn’t get over the hump. The Wheat Kings will always be my nemesis that prevented me from playing for the Memorial Cup.”
Off the ice, Church said he learned a lot living away from home for the first time, and credits the Raiders’ organization and his billet family for helping him in that regard.
Following his junior career, Church embarked on a 10-year professional journey that saw him play all over North America. He initially began with the AHL’s Portland Pirates in Maine, who at the time were the affiliate of the Capitals. Those early professional days with the Pirates would end up paying huge dividends down the road for Church.
He would play the majority of his hockey at the AHL level, but would also play some at the ECHL and even a pair of games with the Washington Capitals.
Early on, Church said the biggest adjustment might have been what happened off the ice. Living on his own, earning a paycheque, Church said grew up quickly while playing professional hockey.
“After my last year in Prince Albert I went to the Washington Capitals camp and was assigned to Portland, Maine, and to me, coming from Dauphin, Manitoba, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan – Portland wasn’t a huge city, but to me it felt like New York,” said Church.
“I came in as a 19-year-old, and learned quick that you’re on your own – you have to find your own place to live, setting up utilities – you grow up really quick.”
On the ice, Church joined a Pirates team that had recently won the Calder Cup and was loaded with future NHLers, including Anson Carter, Richard Zednik, and Andrew Brunette.
“I came into a market that had seen a lot of success, you were well-known in the community,” said Church. “And Barry Trotz was my first head coach, and then Bryan Trottier, and then Glen Hanlon, so I got to play for some guys who had been around the game for a long time.
“And Trotz is just an outstanding coach in the NHL and a real leader. I was privileged to play under him.”
Perhaps more important, Church would meet his future wife Kristin. And after playing in places such as Cleveland, Manchester, Hamilton and more, Church finally wound up his playing career after the 2005-06 season.
“People sometimes ask me if I could do it differently, and play more than two games in the NHL, would I?” said Church. “Do you wish things had gone differently? Sure, who wouldn’t want a long career in the NHL. But all the things that happened to me in my career, the people I met, and having my wife and kids, that wouldn’t have happened if things had not gone the way they had.”
After his playing days were over, Church transitioned into the coaching ranks, where he quickly became the head coach of the Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL.
“That happened pretty quick, when a general manager I used to play for asked me to be an assistant coach in Phoenix, so the family and I moved out west,” he said. “We were owned by the Phoenix Suns, and it was a beautiful city to live in. On the ice, things didn’t go well for us, and I quickly took over as head coach, which happened a lot quicker than I had expected.
“But it was a great learning experience,” he added. “The on-ice coaching is only one part of your job at that level. There’s also recruiting, setting up housing, immigration, travel – there is so much about being in charge of as a head coach and director of hockey operations at the ECHL level.”
Church stood behind the bench in Phoenix from 2006-2009, and while at times he said it was a grind, he also said he learned a lot about how to operate a professional hockey team – both on and off the ice.
The franchise eventually folded when the economy soured, so the Church family had a decision to make. After applying for a few other coaching jobs, they eventually made the decision to move back to Portland.
“We asked ourselves ‘where is our future?’ – out west in Phoenix or back east closer to family,” said Church. “We both made the decision to be closer to family, so we packed up and made the 48-hour drive back to Maine.”
Church said while looking into some scouting opportunities, he met a man by the name of Ron Cain while signing his son up for minor hockey back in Portland.
“He owned the rink, and he remembered me from my playing days here in Portland,” said Church. “So we met for coffee and chatted about what I was doing these days.
“We really hit it off, and Ron gave me the opportunity to come in and coach a Tier 3 junior team at the rink he owned.”
That ended up being step one in Church’s ascent to his current position as the COO with the Pirates.
“Through Ron’s company I started as a coach, then took over as the GM for the facility. Then he moved me into his company Legacy Global Sports, where I became vice-president and began to learn so much about aspects of business – I spent time in finance, in HR, and in organizational development.”
Church said it was much like his experience in Phoenix, where he was given an opportunity to learn, and he made the most of it.
“Then a couple of years ago, Ron took majority ownership of the Portland Pirates, and when he did that, he made some changes to the operational structure of the team, and made me the COO,” said Church. “So everything I had learned from Phoenix, to working for Ron, prepared me for this job, so when he offered the position to me, I knew I was ready.”
It’s been 20 years since Church left Dauphin to pursue his dream. That dream he was chasing when he left home as as 17 year old didn’t end up being a life in the NHL, but the one he’s living now, where he’s married with four children, excelling in a high profile front-office job with an NHL affiliate.
Church loves where life has take him, while fondly remembering his roots. He loves that he got to grow up in Dauphin, and enjoys his opportunities to come back for visits and catch up with family and friends. He knows he’s missed a lot back in Dauphin during his journey from rink to rink across North America – things like nieces and nephews being born – but he knows it was a journey worth taking.