Brandon Manning’s hockey career has taken him all over Canada and the United States - with NHL stops in Philadelphia, Chicago and Edmonton - but never has he dug in his blades overseas, until now.
On Saturday morning, the 31-year-old defenceman boarded a plane at Prince George Airport, with his wife Shea-Marie and their 13-week-old daughter Nora, on their way to Germany.
Manning has signed a one-year contract to play in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga for the Straubing Tigers, resuming his pro career after a one-year hiatus.
“I think it will be fun, after taking year off and having the birth of our baby girl I’m looking forward to the routine of playing competitive hockey again,” said Manning, a Prince George minor hockey product who totalled 14 goals, 48 points and 254 penalty minutes in 255 games over eight NHL seasons.
“Looking at the way the last couple years have gone for me, with free agency pushed back this year, there’s been so much uncertainty going on and we just wanted to know what we’re going to do and kind of made a commitment three months ago that we’re going to do this.”
Manning’s best friend Jason Akeson and four-year American Hockey League teammate signed this season with the Tigers after leading the DEL in scoring last season with Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks). They will living next door to each other in Straubing, a Bavarian city of 44,000, northeast of Munich.
“He’s been over there in Germany for three or four years and him and his wife are expecting a baby next month,” said Manning. “We did a bit of package deal and got townhouses right beside each other so the women will have their girls with them and me and him have each other, so it’s definitely a lot easier on all of us, especially Shea and Nora.”
Manning still has a home in Prince George in the Aberdeen Glen subdivision and lives next door to Stew Malgunas, also a former Philadelphia Flyer defenceman who, like Manning, was born and bred in P.G. Malgunas ended his 13-year pro career in 2003 after two seasons with the Frankfurt Lions and he helped persuade Manning to go to Straubing. The Tigers’ general manager, Jason Dunham, an Edmonton native, played in Frankfurt with Malgunas.
“Stew loved it, and living next door to him he kind of pushed us to go over and experience it and see what it’s all about,” said Manning. “I think it’s come a long way with how they take care of you over there, setting you up with a house and vehicle. It makes it pretty easy on players who come from North America.
“It’s still really competitive hockey, the money’s alright, and the Germans have done a really good job with their hockey programs.”
After one year with the Prince George Spruce Kings and four seasons with the WHL Chilliwack Bruins, Manning started out in the Flyers’ organization and played four seasons with their AHL affiliate before landing a full-time job in the NHL. After three years in Philadelphia, he signed as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018 and was traded at mid-season to the Edmonton Oilers. For two seasons he bounced between Edmonton and their AHL farm team in Bakersfield and he was a healthy scratch for good chunk of the final year of a two-year deal he signed in Chicago.
Manning had offers to go back to the AHL in January but stuck with his commitment to his wife to be there when their baby arrived. He used the time to help out his friend Ryan Howse with his hockey school in Prince George and worked out with the Spruce Kings to keep up his hockey skills. He also had the chance to go snowmobiling and ice fishing with his father Leroy, things he never had time for during the season once he started playing junior hockey.
“It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in a while and I have no regrets,” he said. “It might have cost me a job in the AHL or something this year, but it was definitely nice to have that winter off in Prince George. We really enjoyed it and I’ll always come back here.”
About to begin his 10th pro season, Manning won’t rule out an eventual return to the NHL. He knows his former Flyer coach, Dave Haxstol, has been named head coach of the expansion Seattle Kraken, while Jim Hillier, who coached him with Chilliwack Bruins, is a New York Islanders assistant coach.
“You try and keep those connections and stay in touch with those kind of people because you never know when the next opportunity is going to come up and where you want to take your career,” he said. “I had a pretty good NHL career, I was happy with the way things went and where I started. I’m just looking forward to getting back to playing hockey and kind of see where it goes. Hopefully I can have a really good year over there and it will open up some doors to come back to North America or pursue something different.”
The 14-team German league plays a 52-game schedule with two gams each week and very few overnight road trips. The teams have a 10-day break in November and a one-month break in February when the league shuts down for the Olympics to allow its players to participate on the national team heading to Beijing in 2022. Manning plans to use that time to travel in Europe.
He arrives in Germany on Sunday. The Tigers’ training camp starts Monday and they play five exhibition games before their season-opener Sept. 10 at home against Manheim.