There's no better day for a nice, Irish feel-good story than St. Patrick's Day. And Connor Brown gave the Toronto Maple Leafs a great one. Brown made his NHL debut against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, skating with his hometown team as the 10th rookie to begin his career with the Leafs this season. He was also, incredibly, the eighth to debut in the past three weeks.
Few were as much of a long shot to get here.
Brown's road to the NHL was always an uncertain one. For years, many doubted he could play at the next level for the same reason: A sprite of a kid, he stood out, not because he was pale with red hair, but the fact he was always the smallest on all of his minor hockey teams.
He would often play for his dad, Dan, a renowned coach who's in the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame as a builder. But even the father sometimes worried about giving his son more opportunity than he warranted, given his size.
Connor Brown found a way to earn it by being a never-give-up waterbug on the ice every game.
At 16, he had a big year, with 25 goals and 44 assists on a stacked Toronto Marlboros midget team that included a bunch of eventual NHL draft picks: Scott Laughton, Adam Pelech, Scott Kosmachuk, Matt Finn and Matia Marcantuoni.
All of Brown's high-profile teammates were quickly snapped up at the top of the OHL draft that spring. Laughton went third overall. Finn was 12th, Marcantuoni 18th, Pelech 22nd and Kosmachuk in 29th.
Brown kept refreshing his computer, waiting hours to see his name show up. Finally, he went in the 13th round, 251st overall, to the troubled Erie Otters, who were about to bottom out to finish dead last in all of junior hockey with 10 wins in the 2011-12 season.
He was 5-foot-6 and 127 pounds "out of the tub," as Otters general manager Sherry Bassin liked to joke, implying even that meagre number was a fib.
"He never let that be a factor," Bassin told Leafs TV.
Five years later, Leafs coach Mike Babcock was in awe of how Brown played when training camp opened in Halifax last September. Babcock put him with veterans James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel's old hole – and Brown sped up and down the right wing fighting for pucks, hardly looking out of place.
He almost made the team.
"He was our best kid in training camp," Babcock said. "He has elite hockey sense and he'll be an NHLer for a long time."
"It was huge for my confidence," Brown added.
Brown's path from that OHL draft to here, skating for the Leafs, went straight up. He led that brutal Otters team in scoring, at 17, and caught the eye of Toronto scouts, who took a chance on the tiny speedster with their sixth-round pick.
The next year, Brown teamed with another Connor – McDavid – and his numbers jumped up. The year after that, Brown had 45 goals and 128 points and was the OHL player of the year.
There were still skeptics. He remained small, and many believed he was the product of playing with a generational superstar. But then Brown proved people wrong again in his first pro season, scoring 61 points with the Toronto Marlies last year to land a spot on the AHL all-rookie team.
"I feel like I've come a long way as a player due to a lot of hard work," Brown said on Thursday, hours before his NHL debut. "It's nice to get recognized and be noticed here."
What's got him noticed lately is his numbers. Brown missed almost three months with the Marlies with a broken ankle but has 20 points in 20 games since coming back, carrying the offensive load down there as the Leafs have continually raided their AHL roster.
While hurt, Brown sat in on many of the Leafs meetings, and, again, Babcock was impressed with his tenacity. Despite not being able to walk for weeks, Brown continued to gain weight, something that remains a priority given he is at most 170 pounds.
"He got hurt but trained hard every day," Babcock said. "When everyone else got called up, instead of asking why not him, he just got to work. I appreciate that."
"He came back firing," teammate William Nylander said.
Brown still has work to do. Including their injured, the Leafs now have 15 players 25 and under on the roster and not all of them can make the team next fall. They're also loaded with small forwards, and he might be the smallest.
Then again, few expected him to get this far – and before most of those picked way ahead of him.
"Fan of the Leafs my whole life," Brown said of what the day meant. "So it really is a dream come true. It's not just a cliché. It's something special."