In what turned out to be a bit of an odd coincidence, the day Walleye forward Austen Brassard was drafted into the NHL he was out on Lake Erie fishing for walleye.
Brassard was just a burgeoning 18-year-old from Windsor, Ont., when his phone rang on that memorable fishing trip. Officials from the Winnipeg Jets called to inform Brassard that they had selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL draft.
Brassard said he knew he was “in the ballpark” to be picked in the draft. But instead of idly waiting by the phone on that summer day, he decided to keep his mind occupied by angling for walleye.
“It was nice to be out there with family and friends,” Brassard said. “When I got the call from Winnipeg, it was really exciting. It's such an honor. It was a long time coming. I had worked for a long time for that moment. It's a very humbling experience.”
Brassard first harbored dreams of playing pro hockey when he picked up the sport at age 6 in Canada.
“It stuck right away, and I just blossomed,” he said. “I just seemed to have that muscle memory, and I didn't have to think on it.”
Brassard quickly moved up from the pee-wee ranks and was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League by his hometown Windsor Spitfires in the first round in 2009. The career of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward has taken some twists, but he said the dream to reach the sport's highest level remains the same.
Brassard, 24, has played in 199 games in Triple-A hockey. He has produced 26 goals, 37 assists, and 147 penalty minutes in the American Hockey League — one step below the NHL.
In the offseason, Walleye coach Dan Watson acquired Brassard in a trade with the ECHL's Utah Grizzlies in exchange for future considerations.
Watson said Brassard has the ability to take over a game.
“He's a big guy that can skate well,” Watson said. “You'll see him drop the gloves. He's versatile. One of the reasons why I got him is to score those five-foot goals [in front of the net].”
Watson said Brassard performed well in training camp with the Detroit Red Wings and the Grand Rapids Griffins. But the physical forward is off to a bit of a slow start in Toledo. Brassard ranks 11th on the team in scoring with 10 points in 22 games. He has scored one goal to go along with nine assists. Brassard ranks second on the team in penalty minutes with 33.
“I haven't put up the numbers so far,” he said. “I'm a bigger guy, but I can also put up numbers.”
Brassard said he prides himself on being a complete player.
“I try to use my size,” he said. “I'm a power forward with some offensive [punch].”
Watson said Brassard has yet to produce at the expected rate.
“But he will,” Watson said. “His linemates have been a revolving door. He just needs to shoot the puck more and get to the net. He's getting acclimated. But he can play a top-line role.”
Brassard had been paired effectively with Shane Berschbach and Mike Borkowski on a line that was very productive. However, Berschbach suffered a lower-body injury, and Borkowski was called up to Grand Rapids of the AHL.
Berschbach is practicing again and will return this weekend when the team plays three games in three days. Toledo plays at Brampton on Friday before hosting Atlanta on Saturday and Kalamazoo on Sunday.
Brassard played in 39 games last year for Utah. He posted nine goals and 20 assists along with 45 penalty minutes. He also played in 20 games in the AHL with San Diego and had a pair of goals and two assists.
In 2015-16 with Manitoba of the AHL, he posted career highs in goals (15) and assists (21) in 75 games.
“I have had some ups and downs. You just have to roll with it,” he said.
Brassard expressed similar sentiments regarding the Walleye's current state. The team has lost a season-high three games in a row — all at home — and have dropped six of 10.
“You just have to wipe the slate clean,” Brassard said. “We'll start fresh. You focus on what you can bring to the table.”
Toledo's roster has been stripped of key assets through injuries and call-ups to the AHL. The Walleye are playing without four of their top 12 scorers, but Toledo (14-7-3) continues to lead the ECHL Central Division and is three points in front of rival Fort Wayne.
“We're still in good position in the standings. You just keep pushing forward,” he said.
Brassard said one thing that attracted him to Toledo is its close proximity to Windsor.
“It's been great here,” he said. “The rink is beautiful. It's a nice city. We get everything we need here.”
Brassard, who occupies his free time playing acoustic guitar, recently purchased a home near his hometown with his girlfriend. They are expecting their first child early next year.
The young forward still has aspirations of reaching the NHL.
“For sure it's still a dream,” Brassard said. “I'll just keep working. I feel I'm a good player and still have potential. I'm working hard and having faith that with good intentions, things will work out the way they should.”
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