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NHL dream comes to an end

Eric Brewer hasn't skated in five months. And while he hasn't made it official that he's retired after 16 seasons as an NHL defenceman, he's become a player without a contract, which has allowed him to rediscover his passion for downhill skiing.
Eric Brewer
Eric Brewer at the third annual Prince George Cougars Alumni Hospital Charity Golf Tournament at Prince George Golf and Curling Club in July 2014.

Eric Brewer hasn't skated in five months.

And while he hasn't made it official that he's retired after 16 seasons as an NHL defenceman, he's become a player without a contract, which has allowed him to rediscover his passion for downhill skiing.

Brewer spent the holidays with his family in Kamloops and took time to enjoy the slopes of Sun Peaks, an activity that was strictly forbidden while the former Prince George Cougars defenceman was drawing seven-figure salaries playing hockey.

"I'm not playing obviously, just parenting and getting things organized for real life and just getting ready for ski season," said Brewer, who lives near the North Shore ski resorts in Vancouver and plans to make up for lost time over the next few months.

"You don't ski when you're playing (hockey), it's not even a debate, you don't go. I might have touched the slopes briefly during one lockout, but it's been a long while. I didn't do it a ton when I was kid but I really enjoy it and I'll try to get out a bunch of days this year. My wife (Rebecca) skis a little bit and we'll see if our kids (eight- and five-year-old daughters, Reese and Hadley) are into it."

Brewer's career wrapped up in April, a month after he had been traded from Anaheim to Toronto, having played for six NHL teams.

He played 1,009 regular-season and 34 playoff games, totaling 80 goals, 208 assists and 288 points.

"It's different, to say the least, but when you get a chance to play in the National Hockey League you are on the clock, that is the reality," he said.

"We're all pretty young when we finish hockey and there's lots of living left to do and lots to do beyond, it's just about sorting it out. It just takes time to acclimatize yourself to what else is going to happen because we've basically spent our whole life doing one thing. The Cougars are obviously going to be part of that."

Having bought into the ownership of the Cougars in March 2014 as part of EDGEPRO Sports and Entertainment group, Brewer retained ties with his former junior team along with Vancouver Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis. With his playing days now behind him, Brewer plans to take a more active role with the team, but he says he's not interested in coaching.

"I'm going to watch the Cougars more in the second half and I'll kind of see things evolve for the team - they're on the path now," he said. "The guys probably didn't have the start they wanted but there's a lot of moving parts going on and the program that's been put in place for the team hasn't been around long.

"Greg (Pocock, majority owner) and all the other guys are doing all this legwork and they're starting to establish things they want and correcting some things they didn't want and it's clearing some space for the players to play well, and as a result they are playing well. It's up to us to continually upgrade the program and making it a place where everyone wants to play."

Brewer broke into the NHL in 1997 when he was drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders.

That year he helped the Cougars make the conference final for the first time in their Prince George history, playing on a team stacked with future NHL'ers Chris Mason, Zdeno Chara, Joel Kwiatkowski, Blair Betts, Tyler Bouck and Ronald Petrovicky.

Brewer returned for one more season with the Cougars, then went to the Islanders for his first two NHL seasons. He was traded to Edmonton in 2000, St. Louis in 2005 (where he served two seasons as the Blues' captain) and was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010.

At the height of his career in St. Louis and Tampa, having already played in the NHL all-star game in 2003, he was considered one of the NHL's top two-way defencemen. Other highlights include playing in the 2003 Heritage Classic against Montreal (the first NHL regular-season game played outdoors), and his playoff run with the Lightning in 2011, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference championship against Boston. Brewer played 24 minutes in Game 7 of the semifinal series, the most of any Tampa skater. The Lightning lost to the Bruins by a 1-0 count and Boston went on to defeat Vancouver in the final.

Brewer never had the chance to sip from the Stanley Cup but had a great run of international success. He won Olympic gold with Team Canada in 2002 in Salt Lake City, which ended the country's 50-year Olympic hockey medal drought.

He was a three-time winner of the IIHF world championship, in 2003, 2004 and 2007, and helped Canada capture the World Cup in 2004.

"(Winning the Olympics), that's a big one," Brewer said. "It's such a small opportunity, it only happens every four years and it just so happened the time I was playing was when (NHL players were involved). You think of all those guys who played in the 80s and the first two-thirds of the 90s - world-class hall-of-fame players who never got a chance.

"I would have loved another good crack at that (Stanley Cup) but it's pretty tough out there. Half the league doesn't make the playoffs every year and as you get older you realize there's so much out of your control and it's so competitive."

Brewer is in Prince George this weekend with his family, along with former Cougars defenceman Jeff Zorn, and they've been picked to receive the Cougars' alumni awards as part of the WHL's 50th anniversary celebration. They'll receive their awards before Saturday's game at CN Centre against Victoria.

Brewer was selected in the professional hockey category while Zorn, a practicing urologist in Courtenay, was recognized for his career success outside of hockey through the support of the WHL's scholarship program.

Zorn played three seasons for the Cougars after starting his WHL career with the Edmonton Ice and finished up with the Saskatoon Blades before attending the University of Alberta, where he was a four-time CIS Academic All-Canadian playing for the Golden Bears. He graduated from the U of A's medical school with a doctorate in 2009.

Brewer watched Zorn play for the Golden Bears a few times while they were both in Edmonton but they haven't seen each other since then.

"He's a doctor, he's pretty busy, and it'll be good to catch up with him," said Brewer. "There's a lot of players, some who played pro and some who established careers outside of hockey, who would be very fitting for the award as well."

At 36, Brewer says he's still coming to grips with life after hockey, and it has not been easy. He trained all summer thinking he'd land a position with another team but by mid-August it became apparent that call was not going to come. He could have extended his career playing in Europe but never seriously considered that as an alternative to retirement.

"I think some guys have a really good moment where they're really good with it, but I don't know if I'll ever have that," he said.

"I've really loved playing in the National Hockey League, it's been the best thing, and I think it's one of those things you might not ever get over. It's a pretty good life and I really enjoy it and it's just a big change."