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Brooks making it count with IceCats

On the bus ride to Manchester, N.H., before the IceCats’ first regular season game, head coach Don Granato stood up from his front row seat and surveyed the scene.

He glanced around and saw many of his players “doubled up.” With two empty seats near the front, Granato scanned the bus carefully, and then offered the seats to Brendan Brooks and Aaron MacKenzie. Sure, it’s a simple gesture for two guys who would be playing that night, but one that subtly tells a young player, “You belong in Worcester.”

The team bus is an unofficial totem pole. Veterans get their choice of seats and on down the line. Rookies and try-out players get last pick and often have to share the seats instead of getting two full seats of their own to stretch out. Brooks took the coach’s invitation and carefully climbed over the coolers and legs sticking out into the aisle. He’d get to enjoy some legroom in his new, more spacious home for the hour and a half ride.

Now in his seventh full professional season, the speedy 5-foot-9, 185-pound forward has dotted the minor league landscape. Brooks got his first taste of the pro game with the UHL’s Quad City Mallards, turning pro at 19 years old after going undrafted out of the Ontario Hockey League. He turned down a full ride at Michigan to do so. “It was what I felt I needed to do in order to continue playing and developing,” said Brooks.

After a 26-goal, 52-point season in 1999-00 with Quad City, Brooks jumped to Dayton (ECHL) and had another stellar campaign, scoring 29 goals. The following year, it seemed his hard work finally paid off when he was rewarded with a one-way contract with the Manchester Monarchs. Things started well, and Brooks scored six goals and three assists in just 10 games. Just as quickly though, he found himself back in the ECHL. “I got injured and missed almost three months.” He ended up playing for both Reading and Macon, then went back to Quad City as the team closed out a historic 57-win season.

Brooks’ ride to Worcester began in 2002-03 when he signed with Peoria of the ECHL. “(Peoria coach) Jason Christie showed a lot of faith in me,” said Brooks. His 23 goals in 55 games cemented that faith, and last season Brooks, on an AHL contract, found himself of the top of Peoria’s call-up list.

Once summoned to Worcester, two of his six regular-season markers won games for the ‘Cats, and he also scored a game-tying goal. “He scored some big goals for us, and that went into the decision to renew his AHL deal,” said Granato.

Last April 22, his biggest score came in triple overtime at Manchester in Game 5 of the Atlantic Division semifinal. His rebound shot at the 46-minute mark of OT ended the 13th longest game in Calder Cup Playoff history, and capped a Worcester comeback from being down 2-0 in the series. He downplays the dramatics, explaining it as a case of “right place right time.” If anything, the goal was testament to Brooks’ hard work and determination.

Even with his solid play and timely scoring, Brooks had to prove himself during Worcester’s training camp this season. “He still had to earn a spot,” said Granato. “He has earned everything he’s gotten. It’s impressive he is here when you consider the NHL lockout.” He’s demonstrated his worth so far this season, leading the IceCats with a plus-11 rating. His current pace has him on track for at least a 20-goal season.

In some ways, it is remarkable that Brooks has carved a niche for himself at the American Hockey League level. “I’ve always been too small, went undrafted,” he said without the slightest bit of resentment. “I never wanted to make the low minors my home. I’ve always been driven to compete and play the game, even though I’ve taken the long route to this level.”

With his speed and aggressive style, Brooks shouldn’t have any problem holding on to that prime seat on the AHL bus.