Gwinnett Gladiators forward Andy Brandt has played more games for the team than anyone else and was named captain for the franchise's 10th anniversary season.
Forward Andy Brandt has played more games than anyone in Gwinnett Gladiators uniform and was named captain for the 2012-13 season. The Wisconsin native came to Gwinnett for a short stint after his senior season in college was over. He was re-signed during the following summer and has been with the Gladiators since -- except for one season playing for Victoria and a few trips to the AHL.
On the verge of opening Gwinnett's 10th anniversary season Saturday in South Carolina, Brandt talked to staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including what's required of a Wisconsinite, his introduction to pro hockey and crying the first time he was on skates.
CT: What's Wausau, Wis., like?
AB: It's about 40,000 people in north-central Wisconsin. It's a small-town feeling with the medium-to-big-town city for Wisconsin. It's kind of cool. It's divided in sports. There's three high schools within the area. Two are really good at football and one is pretty good at hockey. But it's a good town to grow up in and raise kids.
CT: How many rinks?
AB: There are two rinks in Wausau and one in Schofield-Weston, which was added after I was out of youth hockey.
The cool thing about hockey there is when we were growing up, with the three high schools, it was one youth program. By the time we got to high school, it was a friendly competitiveness.
CT: Many outdoor rinks?
AB: Tons. That's how I learned. My older brother, he was 5 when my dad and my uncle got him into skating. They took me with them at the beginning of the hockey season and rumor has it -- I was 3, I don't really remember it -- they put me on an outdoor rink at G.D. Jones Elementary. They gave me an aluminum chair to go and skate. I cried for about 15 minutes and they said, "Well, it's not for him."
My mom was out there and took me to the warming house while my brother had a blast. Then he played mimi-mites for a year and I just sat on the sidelines and watched. At the end of the year, they gave me another kick at the can and sent me out before the thaw of the ice outside. I guess I just grabbed a chair and took off and I love it. But I think it's because I watched my older brother have fun for a whole year.
That's what I'm told (smiling). Like I said, I don't remember it.
CT: Do you remember a lot of days coming in frozen from playing outside?
AB: Oh yeah. A lot of the outdoor rinks were at elementary schools. Some had boards and some didn't. I just remember I had cousins and I had friends that didn't even play organized hockey, but we called them rink rats. They would just go out and play outside and love it. It's one of the coolest things to see people out there having fun. Yeah, it's cold and your toes hurt, but it's an absolute ball.
CT: There's something pure about it, being out there with just sticks and gloves and skates.
AB: We moved when I was in fourth grade, to a little bit bigger house with a bigger backyard. My dad was pretty crafty so he made a rink in our backyard. And my mom let it happen.
A lot of fights back there with my older brother. A lot of times coming in with black eyes or crying. Dad just said, 'It is what it is,' and Mom tried to mend our wounds. But I was lucky. I was lucky my dad put in the work to do it -- and obviously you're pretty popular in the neighborhood. There were some pretty cool afternoons with friends out there.
CT: In the echelon of sports there, how to the Packers and Badgers rate?
AB: The Packers take the cake. If you're not a Packers fan, you're not a Wisconsinite. Me personally, I'm not a huge football guy. The only time I've ever been in Lambeau Field was in 2006, when we were lucky enough to play there in an outdoor hockey game against Ohio State. That was a unique experience. I think 11 or 12 guys on the team were from Wisconsin. It meant a lot to them. The people screaming. When the bus rolled up, they were tailgating just like it was a football game. If you've tailgated at a Packers game, you know it can get pretty rowdy. Just pulling up and seeing that got you fired up for the game.
CT: Did you follow Wisconsin hockey as a kid?
AB: I did because there wasn't a lot to follow. Growing up, I remember going to the North Stars' game a couple times with my parents. We followed Badger hockey because it was televised. Then when I got a little older, I went down with a couple other fathers and sons to Milwaukee and the (Badger Hockey) Showdown was always at the Bradley Center.
CT: That had to be cool then, years later, to play for a national championship on that ice?
AB: It was. The whole year was unique. We had the game at Lambeau, the regional games in Green Bay and then the championship game was in Milwaukee. We knew that going it, that it could be a possibility. But it was pretty cool that we didn't have to leave the state of Wisconsin to win a national championship. You can't write it better.
CT: Winters in the South are a little different. Do you miss the cold?
AB: I don't miss it. I miss the white Christmas though. This year, (my wife) Ashley and I hope to get back. I know Ashley misses the four seasons, especially this time of the year with the leaves changing.
Me, I like golf. So the fact that we can golf almost year-round down here is OK with me.
CT: You played two years of junior before you went to college. How old were you when you left?
AB: I hadn't graduated high school so I had just turned 18. I have a June birthday so I was a younger senior. But that was a cool experience I attribute to my parents. I was going to leave a year early to go play juniors. But my mom and dad both said, 'It's your decision, but we'd like you to stay. It's not fair to the friends that you've grown up with and played hockey with your whole life. For you to not graduate with them or play your senior year would be shorting you and shorting them.'Looking back, it was definitely the right decision. I'm really glad I did.
You don't realize it as much then, but there are times like now when you look back and you're glad your parents helped you make the right decision.
CT: When you finished your senior season and you were deciding what to do, how did that process go?
AB: I wanted to get into coaching, really bad. Obviously, individually I didn't have the four seasons I wanted to have at the university. I had 14 points in four years. Any coach looking at those statistics doesn't say, "Well, hey, lets grab him before somebody else takes him." So I was kind of leaning towards getting into coaching. I had a couple of leads for assistant coaching jobs in the USHL.
I came in a week after our season was over and I met with Coach (Mike) Eaves and Mark Osiecki, who was the assistant coach at the time. Mark was a big advocate of me continuing to play. He sat me down and said, "You still want to play?" I said yeah, but there's nobody that's going to be knocking my door down to recruit me after having 14 points in four years. He said, "Well, there are teams that are interested."
To be honest, it took me by surprise.
He said there's a team in Gwinnett, which is just outside of Atlanta, that called about you.
That changed my outlook on everything.
Even though it was for a short period of time at the end of the year, I said I'm going to take this opportunity to see what professional hockey is all about. Here we are today and I never thought five, six years down the road I'd still be playing.
I'm blessed to be here. I still thank (former head coach) Jeff (Pyle) for taking a chance on me. Him and (majority owner) Toby Jeffreys and Chappy (president Steve Chapman).
Let's be honest, it was a chance. I'm thankful for that.
CT: Did you ever ask Jeff what it was that made him call and ask about you in the first place?
AB: (laughing) No. We joked about it a little bit, about me coming in the next year and he wasn't really sure what he was going to get out of me. He signed me pretty early in the summer. He wasn't sure if he was going to keep me, trade me or just release me. We joked about that.
But he always said, "The reason I kept you was you really proved that you wanted it and you worked hard." That's something my parents always drove into me, that if you work hard and you want something, it's there for you to take.
I was at a crossroads and with the support of a lot of people, I got to come to Gwinnett.
CT: And now no one has played more games than you for this team.
AB: (laughing) Yep.
CT: You've only played for one other ECHL team and a couple AHL teams. You played for Victoria for a year. What was the hockey like on the West Coast?
AB: It's good. It's fast. The guys are a little bit bigger. A lot of the rinks are really nice. Travel is a little bit better because you get to fly. Especially with us being in Victoria on the island. We flew everywhere.
It was a good experience. It was an experience where I had a lot of questions going into, especially when I looked at the roster of guys they had assigned up there the year I was supposed to go out. They had a pretty stacked roster. Before I left I told my family I could be back in two weeks.
The coaching staff was great. They took a little bit different perspective on things. They kind of let you be you. It wasn't a lot of meetings. It wasn't a lot of video. They expected you to be a pro. If you didn't know how to be a pro, you weren't going to be there long. It was a different experience. It let me grow as a person.
We had an awesome group of guys out there. Actually a lot of them played in Gwinnett. I think we had four or five guys. It's nice going to a place you know a couple of guys. It's easier to feel at home. It was a great city. There's not one bad thing I could say about my time there.
CT: Now that you're back riding the bus, what's your method of passing the time?
AB: I don't spend a lot of time up front, playing cards or anything. I basically go hibernate in my bunk. I watch a movie or read a couple books. I like chatting with the bunkmates. Pat Galivan was across from me last year. (Cody) Brookwell and (Paul) Flache were up above us.
The cool thing about a bus is you're in a confined area and it drives camaraderie. You get to know your teammates. You get to know their flaws (laughing) and all the good things. Bussing in minor hockey can be painful at times, but it also can be a really cool experience.
CT: What kind of music do you listen to in general?
AB: I'm a big reggae guy. We go down to the Masquerade three or four times a year to see reggae bands.CT: Do you have any preferred pregame or postgame meals?
AB: Not at all. I try to stay away from the rituals. The closest thing I have to a pregame ritual is I have a cup of coffee when I come to the rink. If you want to call that a ritual.
I think some guys can get their heads wrapped around it a little too much and it can mess with them.
CT: Do you remember the first pro game you watched?
AB: It was a Minnesota North Stars game. We were down in the North Stars end. Third level. My mom and dad had the camera out snapping pictures. I think they played the Maple Leafs. My mom still has the photo albums.
CT: How about the first pro game you played? How did that go?
AB: It was good. It was a whirlwind. It was here at the Arena at Gwinnett. I sat next to Blue Bennefield in the locker room.
CT: (laughing) Oh no.
AB: It was a good thing because I was pretty nervous and I didn't know what to expect. If you know Blue, he kept it light. He kept it fun. Patted me on the back and just said, go enjoy it.
I was the 10th forward so I sat there for a little bit, not knowing what to expect. I get out there and there's so much going through your mind and the adrenaline is rushing through. You're just trying not to screw up.
But I made a huge hit in front of the visiting team's bench and the first thing I did was turn around and wonder if someone was coming after me because I just crushed somebody. But that got me into the game.
The guys really welcomed me. Blue and Vig (Mike Vigilante) and those guys were great. They made it easy.