Nobody Can Extinguish Chris Breen’s Fire

Author: Thomas Waind, for PHPA.com
Date: Oct 26, 2017

“Thinking about life after hockey is a weird thing to think about, but I have two kids that I need to take care of so it’s something that I’ve got to do. I’m getting a little older in my career and unfortunately ‘late 20’s’ is considered old in the American League.”

At just 28 years of age and entering his ninth professional hockey season, Providence Bruins defenseman Chris Breen has had to take a hard look in the mirror and ask himself what the future holds for him.  A career that has seen Breen log heavy minutes for nearly a decade in the AHL, North America’s second best hockey league, is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But in a hockey landscape that is constantly changing, his uncertainty is understandable.

This isn’t the first time that the 6’7” blue liner has been uncertain regarding his future in hockey. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 OHL draft by the Saginaw Spirit, there was no guarantee that Chris would even stick in junior hockey. But as a testament to his drive and hard work, Breen found a way.

“My work ethic and personality kind of opened the door for me once I got into training camp. I honestly don’t know how I made it there my first year. As a seventh round draft pick I didn’t really know how far I was going to make it in hockey. Saginaw gave me a shot so I took the opportunity and ran with it.”

Over his five OHL seasons, Breen played big minutes for Saginaw, the Erie Otters, and the Peterborough Petes, leaving a great impression with every stop. But despite his success, Breen still couldn’t imagine a future for himself in professional hockey. This would change during his playing days in Erie where one teammate in particular really opened Breen’s eyes as to what it takes to become a professional hockey player.

“I really looked up to Ryan O’Reilly when I was first breaking into junior with Erie. He was a big time leader on and off of the ice. I have never played with anyone on that level in terms of dedication to the game. He’s the one that made me realize what it would take to get myself ‘there’. I only played with him one season because he was able to crack Colorado’s lineup so quickly, but I learned a lot from him during that time.”

While he was an effective shutdown defenseman in junior, Breen was largely overlooked by scouts because of his skating and did not hear his name called in the NHL Entry Draft. Almost a recurring theme, once he wrapped up his OHL career in 2010 with Peterborough, Breen was left asking “what next?”

“I didn’t get drafted so by my ’08 year it crept into my mind that a career playing professional hockey might not be for me. I looked at the school route but for the most part I just kept playing junior. I didn’t actually believe I could play pro hockey. That is, until we were bounced from the playoffs in my final year in Peterborough.”

After being eliminated in the first round of the 2010 OHL playoffs, Breen was hit with the sudden realization that his junior career was done and in turn his hockey career may also be over. At the end of the season, as he was cleaning out his locker for the last time of his OHL career, the coaches called him into their office.

“The coaches called me into the office and some of Calgary’s scouts were sitting there. They said they’d love to have me. I honestly didn’t think it was possible until that day. I just played and had fun and did the best that I could. Things ended up panning out pretty well for me.”

Generally, bigger players have a hard time with their skating and Breen was no exception.  As he began playing in the American Hockey League with the Flames’ affiliate in Abbotsford at the time, he realized  that simply being bigger than others just wasn’t enough anymore. It took him countless hours of working on speed, form, and technique, but eventually Breen was able to make the transition to pro because of his work ethic and hours of watching game film with the Heat’s defense coach Troy Ward.

In Abbotsford, coach Jim Playfair also was able to bring out the best in Breen with his strong motivational tactics.  Worries of fitting into professional hockey have since been forgotten as Breen went on to play 257 combined games with the Abbotsford Heat in a key shutdown role.

During his final year within Calgary’s organization, Breen finally got his shot to suit up with the Flames in the NHL. As he explains it, after recovering from surgery in the 2013 offseason, Calgary kept him on the big club’s injury reserve as he rehabbed.

“I eventually got into practices and was starting to build my confidence back up. Then in Phoenix, Mark Giardano went down with a high ankle sprain and was questionable to play. I skated warmups and (Giardano) skated to the dressing room five minutes in. Curtis Glencross then skated over to me and said, ‘you realize you’re playing tonight, right?’  I didn’t have too much time to worry about my debut, I was just thrown into the fire.”

Breen suited up for nine games with Calgary and was even able to chip in with two assists. But, while this was a thrilling time in his life, there were some moments that kept him grounded. One such moments was a 5-2 loss in November of 2013.

“My ‘welcome to the NHL moment’ came in an afternoon game against Anaheim,” Breen recalled. “They had Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne at the time and I came out of that game with three goals scored against me.  I logged some big minutes against their top guys and it was tough to get off of the ice without a minus. Koivu undressed me at the blueline on one play. It was on the “Dad’s trip” so unfortunately my Dad saw the whole thing live. Definitely not the best game I ever had.”

Breen was eventually reassigned to Abbostford to close out the season and left Calgary’s organization altogether in the 2014 offseason. For the past three seasons Breen has played with the Boston Bruin’s AHL affiliate in Providence. While he hasn’t gotten another crack at the NHL since his brief stint in Calgary, Breen’s leadership and rugged style of play has earned him an assistant captaincy role and makes him an invaluable asset on a young Providence team.

Breen’ leadership role also stretches beyond the ice as an active member with the Professional Hockey Players’ Association (PHPA) Executive Committee, a position he didn’t originally intend on pursuing. “I went to my first PHPA Annual Meeting kind of by fluke,” Chris recalls. “Our Player Representative in Providence couldn’t attend, so they asked our Alternate Rep Tom Cross and he couldn’t make it either. So Tom said, ‘ask Breener’ and I told them that I was in 100%.”

After becoming Providence’s Player Rep, Breen was eventually elected by fellow Player Representatives onto the PHPA’s Executive Committee where he is instrumental in representing AHL players and communicating their needs to PHPA management and representatives.

“I went to that meeting and it was cool to be around guys like Pierre-Luc Leblond, Mike McKenna, and Max Fortunus who have been on the Executive Committee and spent years and effort into shaping the union. It was something that I was really interested in doing. I was voted onto the Committee after that first year and now I’m right into the fire. When there is talk surrounding budgets and collective bargaining negotiations we’re the ones who meet with the Executive Director. We’re pretty hands on and we’re lucky enough to get to communicate on a pretty regular basis with the PHPA front office.”

This past summer, Breen took the next steps in planning for his career beyond hockey.  Through the PHPA’s Career Enhancement Program, Breen was accepted into the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) program.  Over the course of the offseason Breen went through practical and theoretical firefighting training, and while the prospect of one day walking away from hockey doesn’t excite him, he is eager to see what firefighting has in store.

“Firefighting is something that I’ve always had an interest in. Even when I was in Erie, me and a guy, Brandon Biggers used to go to one of the fire halls in Erie and hang out with the guys. We got to check out the trucks and the guys would show us how to do stuff.  It’s always something that I’ve been interested in. I like all of the teamwork that the guys go through and it’s just something that has always called to me.”

While he is still taking theoretical firefighting courses online during the season, Breen’s number one focus remains being the best hockey player and teammate that he can be. Going into the year his number one goal is to help Providence make a deep playoff run. “I’d love to have some playoff success,” he explains. “I never had much of a playoff run in my junior career. Last season was the best playoffs of my pro career and I’d love to build off it and bring the Calder Cup to Providence.”

After guiding last year’s Bruins team to the third round of the AHL playoffs, Breen is aware of the value that his leadership and toughness brings to the young roster. He hopes that a strong season may catch the eye of former coach and current Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy.

“I would love to get back to the NHL. I’m still playing for a reason.”

  

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