Eric Brewer had a good reason to travel to Penticton last week.
He is one of six B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame inductees from the class of 2020, and they were supposed to gather last Friday at South Okanagan Events Centre to celebrate their contributions to the sport.
That list is long for Brewer, 41, a former Prince George Cougar defenceman and veteran of 1,009 NHL games over 16 seasons before he retired in 2015.
The COVID pandemic has put that induction ceremony on ice, likely until the summer of 2021, and that means Brewer, former Vancouver Canuck defenceman Mattias Ohlund, NHL official Jay Sharrers, builder Ray Stonehouse and the two team inductees – the 2012 Penticton Vees and 2002 Kootenay Ice - will have to wait for what’s coming to them.
“It’s certainly not something you think about when you’re playing but it’s quite nice thing and I was quite surprised,” said Brewer. “I know a couple of the guys in there and it’s a very nice accolade. It’s too bad there wasn’t something for all the inductees this year but they’ve talked about doing something when it’s a better fit to amalgamate a couple years together.”
Brewer played for six NHL teams – New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs since entering the league as 19-year-old in 1998. He never won the Stanley Cup but got as far as the Eastern Conference finals in 2010 with Tampa in 2010. A three-time world champion (2003, 2004, 2007), Brewer’s career highlight came in February 2002 in Salt Lake City when he helped Canada end its 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought.
“From a hockey standpoint, that probably (stands out),” said Brewer.
“The thing I think about the most, though, would be hanging out with your teammates – the games, the practices, the laughs, getting to work with these world-class training staffs and some really good coaches. It was just this really incredible environment of a shared common goal, there were just so many things you didn’t have to talk about, you just understood. It was a level of execution that is just understood and it was a nice place to be in.”
Now five years into his retirement from hockey, he says he has no regrets.
“I probably played longer than a large chunk of athletes and I was pretty happy about having the opportunity as long as I did, it’s a real, privilege to play in the National Hockey League and I’m very thankful for that.
“My thing was just getting enough exercise to manage the change in volume in that and I found that was a bit of challenge for me. One of the perks of not (playing) is to do that is you get spend more time with your family and extended family or some close friends or you’re in a business opportunity and you get to spend time with that.”
Now entering his seventh season as part-owner of the Cougars, the team is planning to start the WHL season in October. The 2019-20 season came to an abrupt end in March when the outbreak hit Canada and the WHL put the end of the season on pause, eventually cancelling its entire postseason without a champion being declared. With so much uncertainty still hovering over the hockey world, the Cougars anticipate training camp will begin on Sept. 15, but that date is subject to change.
On Monday, city council decided to open the three Kin Centre rinks in mid-August, with plans to open CN Centre if there is sufficient demand, which a Cougar camp would create. The WHL includes teams in four provinces and two U.S. states and all activities in each of those arenas are dependent on the rules set out by the different health authorities.
“Hopefully the availability of all the rinks can work and I think that’s the issue with all the sports leagues,” said Brewer. “How do you create an even playing field, location to location, based on the rules of province, county or state? It’s got to be equal for everybody. I think they have a lot of contingency plans for a lot of scenarios and I think they’re waiting for the next stages of opening and try to coordinate it as a league and that’s no small task.
“It’s not like bring high school kids to one or two (hub cities) like they’re doing in pro and just swing away and carry on. The families have to be comfortable to send their kids and we have to have the appropriate options for all the things that need to be done.”
On the ice, Prince George is one of the least successful of the 22 teams in the WHL in recent memory, having missed the playoffs seven of the past 11 years, testing the patience of the Cougar faithful. The Cats loaded up high-end draft picks over the past few years and have the makings of solid team, but Brewer won’t go out on a limb to predict the need to plan a parade route anytime soon.
“We’re very aware that the community has been told, ‘just wait till next year,’ and so we’re kind of not saying that,” said Brewer. “We’re starting to get a bit older and these kids who have been good players in their minor hockey programs are coming through and they’ll be good to watch and some of them will be here for quite a while.
“I few years ago we took a step back (trading veterans away for bantam draft picks) so that we could hopefully take steps forward and it’s just starting to show now. There’s lots of upside coming, so we are excited for that. We’ve got a real good care group of business support and fan support that’s been awesome for us and we’re thankful for that. It’s up to us that we’re putting a team out there that the fans can connect with and they can see them grow into high-functioning adults and hopefully they can progress further and play pro hockey.”
Brewer and minority owner Dan Hamhuis have a hand in the Cougars’ hockey operations decisions and utilize their playing expertise and NHL connections in whatever way they can help the team. Hamhuis and the Nashville Predators are in Edmonton preparing for their best-of-five play-in series against the Arizona Coyotes which starts Sunday (11 a.m. PT).
“He’s focused on being an NHL athlete and he’s excited to be playing again,” said Brewer. “These are exciting times to be playing pro sports.”
Now that summer weather has finally arrived in B.C., Brewer admits he’s been enjoying the outdoors and hasn’t been watching much of anything on TV, including the NHL. But with four games per day on tap starting Saturday, he’ll try to find the time to tune in.
“With what little I know, the NHL has done a great job with how they’re doing it, limiting the travel and the exposure,” he said. “I hope that they’re able to stay healthy and not have any outbreaks so they can keep it going.”
Each of the 24 teams involved in the playoffs team was limited to just one exhibition game and after a fourth-month pause in the season he knows the players are going to have to play themselves into game shape.
“The biggest thing is staying healthy when your body’s not conditioned to skate as much as it was before,” he said. “When you get into March, at the end of a season, you’re skating all the time, probably touching the ice eight or nine times a week and so you’re pretty in tune with it. But if you have a few month off and you have limited availability to ice, managing the health of athletes will be everything. Still trying to get enough icetime so the guys are sharp will be a real balancing act for sure.”
Brewer lives in Vancouver with his Prince George-born-and raised wife Rebecca and their daughters Reese, 12, and Hadley, nine. He’s been teaching hockey skills in small groups for his youngest daughter’s hockey team and also helps coach his older daughter’s soccer team. Like many B.C. parents during the first three months of the pandemic Eric and Rebecca stuck close to home helping facilitate their kids’ online teaching sessions, enjoying the outdoors with downhill skiing, soccer, mountain biking or beach hikes.
“We’ve just been following Dr. Bonnie’s rules and guidelines and we’re pretty thankful we get to listen to here every day or every other day,” he said. “She’s been pretty much bang-on and she certainly has given a lot of comfort to our province.”