Brent Brekke's hockey journey has taken him places.
From the outdoor rinks in Devils Lake to behind the bench at St. Lawrence University and many stops and experiences in between.
Q: Where you born in Jamestown? Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Minot and actually grew up in Devils Lake, attending grade school and junior high there up until seventh grade. Then our family moved to Jamestown.
Q: Did you play a variety of sports growing up and when did hockey become the sport you wanted to focus on?
A: I really enjoyed baseball and football as well as hockey. I spent a lot of time skating and playing at the outdoor rinks (in Devils Lake). But you had to keep yourself active after the hockey season and that's where my interest in baseball and football came. Eventually, I focused more on hockey (took part in summer camps). I did play football my junior year (at Jamestown for coach Nold).
Q: What years did you play high school at Jamestown? What were some of your memories of that time?
A: I played my sophomore and junior year. Minot was a big rivalry with us and we had some spirited games. I remember the fans really got into those games as well. I think we also had some battles with Devils Lake. Part of that was the fact that my family left there (before entering high school). My older brother (Jay) played goal and he we left just before he would have played for Devils Lake. So I think there was incentive for both sides to win when we played.
Q: You played defense. Was that a position you gravitated to at an early age?
A: I recall when I would go to public skating in Devils Lake you always had to skate backward at the start before they let you play on your own. So, I learned to be comfortable skating backward and being a versatile skater. I played both forward and defense in youth hockey, but I liked the defensive side of the game. The shutdown defenseman role.
Q: You left Jamestown before your senior year to play junior hockey in Rochester, MN. Was that a difficult decision?
A: Knowing I wasn't going to be with my team and be around my friends was tough. And missing out on playing in front of my community. But I wanted to see if I could compete and have success at the next level (Juniors/USHL). That was the next step for a player. I knew I was giving something up to hopefully advance my playing career. Following my first season there (in Rochester, Minnesota), I was able to return in time to finish school and graduate from Jamestown.
Q: What was Junior-level hockey like for you?
A: I was coming to a program that had success at the national level and winning championships, but interestingly, we didn't draw well. We didn't get a lot of fans. We often had to practice at 10 p.m. We didn't have our own locker room. We had to take our equipment home each night. High school and youth hockey was a higher priority when it came to ice time and community interest. Today, junior hockey has gained more interest, but back then it wasn't widely support. That first year I had my ups and downs...growing pains. I was so used to getting a lot of ice time in high school. I had to figure out how to make the most of my opportunities when they came. Things picked up for me in my second year. We had a great run that season I was getting more opportunities to play. There were a couple of North Dakota guys that were on that team with me (Jay Ness and Chad Johnson from Grand Forks).
Q: Was college hockey something you wanted to pursue growing up?
A: Playing college hockey didn't really come into the thought process right away. I knew I had to see If could compete and be successful at the Junior level before I would get that chance to play in college.
Q: You were recruited and attended Western Michigan. How did that opportunity come about?
A: Honestly, I didn't know where Western Michigan was located! I had some interest from some other schools as well. I visited North Dakota and was scheduled to visit Colorado College later on. I remember going to Western for a visit and it went well, but they wanted an answer before I left. This was before cell phones, so I had to scramble around and find a pay phone and get in touch with my folks. Ask them what they thought. I decided to take the jump and it proved to be the right move.
Brent Brekke (left, 14) battles a Bismarck High puck carrier (10) in this game from the late 1980s. Brekke played high school hockey at Jamestown and is currently the head coach at Division One St. Lawrence University. Photo courtesy of the Bismarck Tribune
Photo courtesy of Western Michigan Athletics
Where are they now: Jamestown standout Brent Brekke
Is head coach at Division 1
St. Lawrence University
The official site of the Western Dakota Association
Resides: Waddington, N.Y.
WDA school: Jamestown, class of 1989
Did You Know: Brekke played collegiate hockey at Western Michigan (1990-94)... and was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL in 1991...He currently coaches (Division 1) St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY
Q: You didn't give coaching much serious thought when you were still a player, correct?
A: I was motivated to be a player. I never had that aspiration to coach. I recall when I was finishing up my time at Western, assistant coach Mike Schafer asked me if that is something I would be interested down the road. At the time, I didn't really give it a lot of thought, since I wanted to keep playing. I certainly appreciated his thoughts and taking an interest in me.
Q: You eventually moved on to college coaching. You served as an assistant at Cornell, Miami (Ohio) and Clarkson. What were your duties/responsibilities in those roles.
A: As an assistant, recruiting is your No. 1 priority. That is always the focus. You spend a lot of hours on the road watching and following players develop and determining which ones will be a good fit for the program. Eventually, you gain more trust from the head coach and take on other responsibilities such as special teams. During my coaching at Cornell, I would watch the first period up in the press box and then be on the bench for the second and third periods. You also learned the day-to-day operations of running a program. Travel details and setting up video (coaching/scouting). Not all programs had personnel in place right away to fill all those hockey operation jobs. So, you had to learn to do it. You definitely earned your stripes.
Q: You spent nearly two decades as an assistant. That's a lot of time and experiences gained, wouldn't you agree?
A: Yeah, I have the good fortune of seeing a lot. Developing great friendships and contacts and being part of many successful teams. I was on the bench for a national championship game (2009 with Miami of Ohio). And been involved in building programs back up. You learn never to take things for granted. Just working hard doesn't guarantee success. There are injuries, bad luck that can come along. You have to remain committed to your plan and keep working.
Q: You were named the St. Lawrence University coach in 2019. What interested you in pursuing that position/program?
A: I didn't apply for it to start, but when they re-opened the search I took an interest in it. Things happen for a reason and I was fortunate to get the position. There are different responsibilities going from an assistant to a head coach, but I felt those earlier coaching experiences prepared me for the job. Some things you have to learn on the fly. We're going through some renovations with our facilities. We're excited about what's ahead for us.
Q: COVID-19 certainly has put a lot of challenges and strains on college athletics. How has your job/program been impacted?
A: This spring we had a lot of Zoom calls with our players and officials at the university and conference level. Things changed from day to day. You definitely take for granted the opportunity to get together as a team, coaching staff. I think our players also realized that. It was certainly strange not being able to come together. If there was a silver lining to the pause, was getting a chance to spend more time with family.
Q: Certainly there are a lot of questions and uncertainties with the upcoming season (2020-21). How do you approach theses challenging times?
A: I think you have to expect there is going to be some setbacks. Some things that will come up that you can't prepare for. You just do the best you can to prepare and take things in stride.
Q: Do you have any advice for a young athlete/high school coach?
A: Enjoy what you're doing, have a positive attitude each day coming to the rink. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. See what opportunities are out there. You never know where you will end up.
A: It was good. I had the opportunity to play a lot right away as a freshman. I was paired (on defense) with a senior and he was more of an offensive-defenseman. I was more of a stay-at-home defense, so It was a good fit and I gained a lot of confidence right away.
Q: Was there a particular memory/season that stands out from your time at Western Michigan (1990-94)?
A: It's where I met my wife. She competed in track and cross country.
As far as hockey goes, the opportunity to play so many different programs and the experiences that went with that. I recall Lake Superior State being a tremendous program during that time. They won a pair of national championships. They were such a deep team. We played Kent State and Illinois-Chicago that no longer have Division 1 programs. Ohio State played in a rink at that time that only seated around 700. I remember Notre Dame had their ice rink in a large gymnasium that had a curtain blocking off one side of the gym for their other activities. You would be playing and hear a whistle on the other side of the building. It was just a different time.
Q: You also had the opportunity to play on Team USA at the 1991 World Junior Tournament in Saskatoon, SK. How did that come about?
A: So when I was growing up my brother and I attended summer camps in Brainerd, MN. Kevin Constantine was one of the instructors during those camps. He was my coach at Rochester for the first few months I was there before taking another coaching opportunity. He was named coach of Team USA, and since he knew me and where I was at in my playing career, I was invited to try out. I was fortunate to make the team.
Q: What was that experience like to play in a high-level International event?
A: What made it such an unbelievable experience was it was so close to home. My family got to see me play. And looking back now, there was so many great players that were part of that tournament that eventually went on to the NHL. Pavel Bure (Team Russia), Eric Lindros (Team Canada). That event is such a big deal in Canada and the attention that the tournament received was tremendous. We finished fourth, and at that time, was the best finish for USA.
Q: You also were drafted in the NHL, correct?
A: Yes. After my first year of college I was taken by the Quebec Nordiques.
Q: What was it like balancing the hockey side of college with the academics. There is quite a time commitment.
A: During my second year in Juniors I didn't take any college courses. I just focused on hockey, so getting back into the routine of regular classes was a bit of an adjustment. The school made sure you had access to tutors, the resources to make sure you stayed on top of things, academically. Time management is so important. I wasn't a great student, but I worked hard and put in the time.
Q: What degree did you earn from Western Michigan
A: Business Administration/Marketing
Q: Following your college career, you pursued a pro career, correct?
A: Yes. I ended up signing the contract with Quebec. The franchise relocated to Colorado during the second year of the contract. I spent my time playing in the American and East Coast Leagues.
Q: Following your pro career, what was next for you?
A: I moved back to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was getting married and actually looking at getting involved in helping the start up for in-line hockey there when I got a call from a college teammate about a coaching opportunity in Chicago. A Junior-level club, the Chicago Freeze, recently relocated from Detroit. He was going to serve as an assistant coach, but got the chance to be part of of the coaching staff at the Air Force Academy. He asked if I would interested in looking into the job.