Blast from the Past – Eric BraffPosted: 28/09/2012
It was the start of a new era in Basingstoke hockey in the autumn of 2006. General Manager/coach/goalie/everything else Mark Bernard had accepted a dream job and left Basingstoke for the heady heights of the AHL and eventually his name on the Stanley Cup.
The previous season’s captain, Doug Sheppard took on the mantel of player/coach and went about building his team. It saw the start of the famous “Bison Line” of Chambers, Cruikshank and Owen as well as the sole incursion into Europe of minor league defensive legend Mark Desantis.
It also saw the start of a 3 year association with the club for Eric Braff. The 6’3 defenceman was a fan favourite on and off the ice; a low PIMS, low scoring, stay at home defenceman who was with the club through some good and bad times.
The last Bison coach of the EIHL era took some time to answer some questions about his hockey career, his life in retirement and why he’s the man to ask if you have any questions about chicken.
You were born in near Toronto in Ontario, what was it like growing up there? I assume hockey was a big part of your life.
I started playing hockey when I was five years old and loved it from the beginning. I am sure you hear the analogy all the time that ice hockey to Canadians is like football to the British. Speaking to that, when I was six years old I moved out to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, arguably THE ice hockey Mecca due to someone named Sidney, is when hockey became serious for me. Still in the single digits for years of my life, I was exposed to hockey…and more hockey. My fondest memories are playing “road hockey” in the streets every day after school. One could argue this was a daily ritual. These road hockey games included former NHL fan favourite Sean Avery and even ex-Blaze/Giant Evan Cheverie. It was great growing up with these guys at such a young age and can even admit that Sean actually matured from what he was like back in those days…if you can believe that.
You played for the Kingston Fronteacs in the OHL for 4 years alongside future players in the NHL and over here. What are your favourite memories of that time?
Kingston was a great place to play junior hockey. And guess who got traded to my team in my third season, yep, Sean Avery! I played with lot of great players in my time there, including Matt Bradley, Matt Cooke, Jan Bulis and goalie Andrew Raycroft.
You spent 4 years in Kingston as part of one of the fiercest rivalries in junior hockey between the Fronteacs and the Belleville Bulls. What were those games like to play in?
These games were always intense with a play-off type atmosphere in sold-out buildings. From a fans perspective, the games were always entertaining and 9 times out of 10, “festivities” would usually start in the pre-game warm-up. And 9 out of those 10 times, things were instigated by my teammate, good friend and ex-Phoenix Brett Clouthier.
After your time in the OHL rather than go pro you moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia to play university hockey for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. What was the driving force to go down the educational route?
Well, I will admit that growing up and still today I am nerd. I did well in school and knew that hockey was not going to last forever. As a 16 year-old hockey player, you have to make a decision to play junior hockey in Canada or pursue a scholarship in the NCAA in the US. I chose the former only because I negotiated a package to have a Canadian university scholarship after my time at the junior ranks. I can’t say ‘no’ to free education.
In 2004 you were on the X-Men team that won the University Cup. What do you remember about that season and the finals in New Brunswick?
Hopefully I will not disappoint the supporters in Basingstoke with this comment, but the 2003/04 season at St.FX was my favourite and most memorable of all. The camaraderie and what we accomplished this year will never be forgotten. I am still in close contact with most of my teammates from my university team. I even had two of them as ‘co-best men’ at my wedding in December 2011.
One of the big traditions at StFX is the receiving of the X-Ring in your graduating year. Where do you keep yours?
I wore it for the first few years after graduating. St.FX is truly a small, cult-like, university and to this day if I spot a stranger with an X-ring I will strike up a conversation. As for my ring, I keep it in a drawer and bring it out for special occasions.
You finally turned pro in 2005 with Pensecola in the ECHL. What are your memories of that year?
The beach! If you Google “Pensacola beach” that will give you an indication of where I lived. Our team was…not good, so we were out of the play-off picture with two months remaining in the regular season. However, this did not discourage many of my teammates as our ousting coincided with a popular American pass time, spring break! So we were a bad hockey team with great tans! Panther boss Corey Neilson and player Brendan Cook were two teammates from this season.
How did you end up signing in Basingstoke?
I definitely need to thank Doug Sheppard for giving me the opportunity to come to England. I did not have a player agent at the time so I literally emailed every team out there. Shep got back to me within a few days and I was sold.
You were part of the infamous 2007/08 “Bison 10” season that saw the club nearly die and included the Knockout Cup final run. How do you remember that season?
Two words. Tomas Enstrom…or whatever his name is! Haha. Aside from him, the Bison 10 was definitely my favorite year in Basingstoke. We had such a small group of guys and the amount of heart and determination we played with should not be forgotten. I will not forget Coventry’s four-goal outburst in the final period to lose the Cup. That was a heart-breaker. But seriously, I wonder where Tomas is now?
The 2008/09 season started promisingly then things turned sour for the club again. You ended up as player/coach in a nearly impossible position. What was that season like from the inside perspective?
Difficult. We were a net-exporter of players that season and it is tough to compete when people leave and are not replaced. I took on role of coach as I was committed to turning things around. We started off well under Jeremy, Greg, and my tenure but things hit a wall with Kevin Reiter’s injury…so I blame him.
After the Bison dropped to the EPL, you moved to Italy and won the Serie A2 title with Eppan Pirates, your last pro season. How did it feel to go out on such a high?
It is an amazing feeling to win a championship at the end of your career. Italy was such a remarkable place with great people, food and scenery. I became close friends with Peter Campbell, Joe Tallari, Jon Coleman and Mike Ellis, all former Elite Leaguers.
Who was the most influential person in your career and why?
It was my mother who played the most crucial role in my career. She raised me well and I owe her all the credit in the world. She was my number one critic growing up always yelling at me from the crowd to “SKATE.” I had to tell her to stop once I made it to junior hockey.
Would you encourage your children to take up the sport?
Absolutely! I have a new addition to my family, Mayson Parker Braff who is almost four months old and already 9 kilos! He is a little bowling ball and the greatest thing to happen to my wife and me. He already has a pair of ice skates, hockey stick and net. Maybe he will grace the shores of the UK in 25 years or so.
You’re now retired from the game and have recently become both a husband and father. Congratulations on those, how is life for the newly minted Braff family?
Thank you and it has been great! My wife Torrey and I could not be more in love with our son! It’s been the greatest experience thus far. After hockey, adjusting to the 9-5 lifestyle was tricky at first, but you get into a routine and enjoy different things than going to the arena every day, which admittedly, I do miss on occasion. I am currently an Economist for the Chicken Farmers of Canada, so anything you want to know about poultry and agriculture, I’m the guy!
Final message for the Bison fans:
As for the fans, I truly miss my time in Basingstoke and interacting with so many great people. Hopefully I can make my way back to ‘the Stoke’ for a visit one day to introduce my family and watch the Herd in action.
Many thanks to all those who submitted questions. We are yet to find a bookmaker in Basingstoke who will accept the bet of Mayson Braff to play for the Bison.