AUSTIN — Barrett Brooks’ love for hockey started in an unfinished basement in Kalamazoo, Michigan, nearly 20 years ago.
His dedication to and passion for the sport has brought him full circle.
“When I was coaching at Western Michigan (University) in the early 2000s, when our kids were first born, we had a basement that wasn’t finished and we got the kids on rollerblades early in their lives,” Brooks’ dad, Chris, said. “Every morning they got up in their onesies and buzzed around the basement.
“Just being around it, they got the bug for it.”
Chris’ job took the Brooks family from Kalamazoo to Hidalgo, Texas, a city on the Texas-Mexico border, and back north to Stevens Point, Wis.
Through all the travels and changes, though, hockey was a constant for Barrett Brooks and his older sister, Bryar. Even when there was no organized hockey to play for the Brooks kids, they were always around the rink, skating on their own or with the professional and college players their dad coached. Those are the perks of being a coach’s child.
“Where we lived in Texas, it wasn’t a very big hockey community,” Barrett said. “The hockey was very limited down there. I settled in when we got to Wisconsin, actually. That’s when I became really committed and started to get serious about it.”
All that time around the rink and around a dad who has coached the sport at a high level for 22 years — including 13 as an assistant coach at the NCAA Division I level — has paid off for 19-year-old Barrett, a second-year player for the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League.
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound forward leads the Bruins on and off the ice. He leads the team in goals (nine) and is second in points (15), one behind fellow Western Michigan commit Carson Riddle. Indeed, Barrett Brooks is following in his dad’s skates and will play Division I college hockey in the city where his hockey career started with rollerblades and an unfinished basement.
“He’s a coach’s kid, the spitting image of what you’d expect from that,” Bruins fourth-year head coach Steve Howard said. “He’s very quiet, just does things the right way.
“He has good speed and has a year here under his belt. Barrett has been learning and getting better and his confidence keeps growing. That’s why he’s our leading (goal) scorer. He’s getting the opportunities in all the right situations for him to blossom, and we’re loving the way he’s tracking.”
A LOVE FOR THE GAME
Barrett Brooks stands just 5-feet-7, pretty close to the same size his dad played at when he starred at Western Michigan from 1992-96, scoring 57 goals and 184 career points from 1992-96.
Size might be the first thing some coaches or opponents notice when they see Barrett, but that element quickly vanishes when the puck drops. Once that happens, Brooks’ skill, hockey IQ and passion for the game are evident.
“He just has a love for the game, which, I’ve been around a lot of kids over my playing and coaching career,” said Chris Brooks, now in his fourth season as an assistant coach at Michigan Tech after spending the previous six seasons as the head coach at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, “and one thing that separates most kids from others is love of and commitment to the game.
“The details he has — especially at his size, his fundamentals and details have to be very good — his love for the game and will to separate himself has to be good. It’s no different than me as a player. … He’s committed to the game, committed in the weight room. He lives it all the time.”
Over his two seasons in Austin, Barrett Brooks hasn’t shied away from putting in the work needed to improve and stay on track to play at the highest level of college hockey, and in one of college hockey’s toughest conferences.
“Coach Howard just wanted me to come in and play a bigger leadership role this year, being my second year here,” said the soft-spoken Brooks. “The league has gotten a lot better this year, with the COVID situation, so we just have to get to the rink and be ready to go every single day.”
GOING BACK TO WESTERN
Barrett was just six years old when his family left Kalamazoo in the spring of 2008, when his dad took a job as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees of the Central Hockey League, a minor league that operated from 1992-2014 and included teams from Arizona to Tennessee to Texas.
Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University were never far from Barrett’s mind, though. So when Division I coaches started knocking on his door, he was thrilled that Broncos head coach Andy Murray was one of them.
But as strong as the family’s ties are to the Broncos’ program, Chris Brooks let his only son come to his own conclusion. There was no pushing or prodding Barrett to play for the same program that his dad was an assistant captain for 25 seasons ago.
“I just wanted him to get in a situation where he could have an unbelievable college experience,” Chris Brooks said. “I don’t want him in my shadow, I want him to be his own person. I recruit players all the time and always tell kids to get themselves in a situation where they’re comfortable and feel they can have success.
“It’s more about getting that unbelievable experience where you can grow and meet academic dreams, too. You have to have that balance between academics and athletics.”
As much as Barrett Brooks was flattered by the offers that came his way, his heart was in Kalamazoo, saying he has a great comfort level with the campus and the program.
In short, it’s home.
“The coaches just want me to get better each and every day (in Austin),” he said. “They’ll talk to me more about (my role on the team) once I get there. Right now, it’s worrying about getting better every day, worry about this team and helping it win. When I get there, we’ll have those conversations.”
As for helping his current team, the Bruins’ coaching staff couldn’t be happier with what Brooks brings to the locker room and the ice every day, practice or game.
“On the ice, he moves his feet, finishes his checks and he just knows where to be,” Howard said. “He can learn just from us taking a dry-erase board and saying ‘hey, we want you to go here and we want you to do this.’ Then he’ll go out and do it like we drew it up.
“He’s very coachable and he’ll learn in any way you ask of him. He’ll know exactly what you’re talking about and asking for, then he’ll go out there and accomplish it.”