LEWISTON – It was a 60-degree day in Western New York and a native quickly pointed out to Derek Brown this temperate weather was abnormal.
Brown arrived on Monteagle Ridge by way of Peoria, Ariz. He’s a rare southwestern recruit for the Niagara Purple Eagles and while he’s not looking forward to driving in snow for the first time, he’s already slightly started to acclimate.
“I wake up and I see the temperature is 53 and I’m like ‘oh that’s warm,’” Brown said. “But if I was back home …”
There wasn’t any real need to complete that sentence. Fifty-three is pretty chilly for the desert. But it’s become a growing region for developing hockey players.
Auston Matthews is the most famous player to hail from Arizona, going No. 1 in the 2016 NHL draft to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But as hockey becomes more common place in the region – from the popularity of Matthews to the Arizona Coyotes to the first Division I college program at Arizona State – the quality of players is bound to increase.
“When I first started playing it wasn’t very big,” said Brown who grew up in suburban Phoenix. “Obviously there were always good players but there’s going to be a lot more kids coming from Arizona. It’s getting more and more common I think. You see all the players younger now, they’re committing to big-time schools. Even more players besides Auston Matthews are on NHL draft lists and things like that.
“A lot of retired NHL players decided to stay in Arizona and they ended up coaching and I think learning from them, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you have a place to skate you can get better and I think that leads to getting taught to play the game the right way versus years ago. We weren’t getting taught by ex-NHL players so I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Brown may not have been coached by former NHL players, but he learned to put creativity into his game. After playing minor hockey in Arizona he moved to Texas to play for the Odessa Jackalopes in the North American Hockey League. At a tournament in Minnesota he crossed paths with former Niagara associate coach Tim Madsen. That’s how he first heard about the Purple Eagles.
“I was talking to a couple schools and Niagara was really pushing for me to come there. I felt they wanted me the most,” Brown said. “I thought it’d be a good fit and everyone I talked to that came here just said good things about it. I just thought it would be a good opportunity even though it’s not really a common thing to do if you’re a West Coast kid to come all the way out here but I’m happy I made the decision.”
Niagara’s pretty happy, too.
Brown leads the Purple Eagles in scoring with nine points (three goals, six assists). Brown sat out the season opener but got his opportunity in the second game of the season. By the third game he had a goal and was the team’s No. 3 center behind junior Derian Plouffe and sophomore Nick Farmer. But injuries have moved Brown up and he continues to impress the coaching staff.
“He was a premier player in the North American league and in our training camp, he just had a slow start to the season and we just really didn’t know where he was going to fit in,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We gave him the second night against Holy Cross opening weekend and he’s just taken off. He’s been a go-to guy for us. It seems whoever we put on his line produces. We’ve got him on the power play now. He’s pretty creative, he’s crafty. He doesn’t have the hardest shot. He’s not the fastest guy in Atlantic Hockey but he’s up there in regards to one of the smarter players, that’s for sure.”
It wasn’t the best training camp for Brown, who for the first time found himself outside his comfort zone.
“I was talking to my dad about it. It was just the first time I ever had a change of scenery,” Brown said. “I played for the same junior team all three years of my career. Guys in juniors sometimes get traded and they’re forced to adjust to something new. I stayed in the same spot for all three years so I got real comfortable being there and I think coming here, I was completely out of my comfort zone at first.
“During those Purple and White games, I was just in a shell. Like I was a little timid to do things and it just took maybe the first game to kind of get into things and realize it’s still hockey, it’s just a step up. Once I started feeling more comfortable and more comfortable in the locker room I think it came easier on and off the ice.”