Sean Brown Biography
Played in Ontario Hockey League, Often Inhabited Penalty Box, Signed by Devils
Professional hockey player
New Jersey Devils defenseman Sean Brown, one of just a handful of players of African descent in the National Hockey League (NHL), brings to the minds of many fans an earlier, more physical era of professional ice hockey. He is big (six-feet three-inches tall, 210 pounds), powerful, and a bit intimidating on the ice. Fights were on the decline in the NHL in the early 2000s, but Brown got into his share, and fans of the Boston Bruins, for whom Brown played from 2001 through 2003, dubbed him the Brown Bomber. He was part of several NHL playoff squads and was looking for his big break as hockey rinks were darkened by the players' strike and owners' lockout that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
Brown was born in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, east of Toronto, on November 5, 1976. His life was consumed with hockey from a very early age, as he took to the ice as a defenseman in the local junior "pee wee" league. At one point his father gave him an autographed photo of Willie O'Ree, the Canadian-born black player who broke the NHL's color barrier in 1958. By the time Brown was in his late teens he had broken into organized hockey, playing 15 games for the Oshawa Legionnaires of the Ontario Junior Hockey League during the 1992-93 season.
Played in Ontario
After beginning the 1993-94 campaign in another junior league in Manitoba, Brown moved on to the Belleville Bulls squad of the Ontario Hockey League, a prime breeding ground for NHL talent. He excelled over three years at Belleville, getting into the playoffs in 1994 and 1995 and consistently improving each year. Traded to the Sarnia Sting midway through the 1995-96 season, he returned to the playoffs once more and notched a strong 58 points (goals plus assists) for the split season even though he was never known primarily as an offensive threat. He was named to the OHL Second All-Star Team in 1996.
Brown also played for several seasons with the Knoxville Cherokees of the East Coast Hockey League in the United States, where hints of his combative on-ice personalilty began to surface. "We know they were just playing tough in their arena," he told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Nick Gates, referring to a series of illegal hits the Cherokees suffered in one game against the Jacksonville Lizard Kings. "(But) we file it away in the back of our minds. We know the next time we play them, we have a chance to get them back." Brown played both defense and offense in Knoxville, gaining some experience as a forward.
The NHL's Boston Bruins took note of Brown's strong statistics and chose him in the first round of the 1995 NHL draft; he was the 21st pick overall. Before getting the opportunity to play for the Bruins or enter their minor-league system, however, he was sent to the Edmonton Oilers in a complex trade. In the 1996-97 and 1997-98 season, Brown played mostly for the Oilers' Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs minor-league team in the American Hockey League (AHL), joining the parent squad for short periods.
Often Inhabited Penalty Box
In 1998, Brown began the first of four full seasons with the Oilers, earning, in the words of the Bergen County (New Jersey) Record, "a reputation as a stay-at-home, physical defender." He was a consistent player, blocking 29 shots over 51 games in his first seasons and improving to 46 blocked shots (with 12 points on offense) in his second. His most notable statistic as an Oiler player, however, related to his rough-and-tumble style of play: he spent over 100 minutes in the penalty box in each of his four seasons, with penalty stretches of 188 and 192 minutes in 1998-99 and 1999-2000 respectively.
Brown's playing time dropped somewhat over his last two seasons at Edmonton, even though he notched a career-best six goals in 2001-02. He was traded back to the Boston Bruins on March 19, 2002. He finished out the season with the Bruins, earning the admiration of fight-loving hockey fans by taking on a still-larger player, the six-foot six-inch Peter Worrell, in his second night as a Bruin. During the off-season, the Bruins attempted to develop Brown's offensive skills as a forward. The move was beneficial for Brown's own career prospects. "I think it can definitely help me out," he told Boston Herald writer Steve Conroy. "You need someone who can go back and forth [between offense and defense]."
At Edmonton, Brown had been part of an unusual cluster of five black players, several of them Quebec-born athletes of Haitian descent. Blacks remained a rarity on NHL rinks, but the Edmonton squad had made strides toward diversity with the inclusion of black goalie Grant Fuhr on its Stanley Cup teams of the 1980s. Racial controversies flared several times in the NHL in the early 2000s, notably when AHL coach John Vanbiesbrouck used a racial slur against an opposing player in 2003. Brown, however, discounted the idea that racial tensions were on the rise in hockey generally, telling the Providence Journal-Bulletin that "There are all kinds of backgrounds playing the league, and they have respect for each other. … I don't think there's a problem."
Signed by Devils
Brown had limited success in his new dual role with the Bruins in the 2002-03 season as he struggled to master the team's complex offensive routines after a long layoff from the territory of the opposing goal. He got into 69 games, spending 117 minutes in the penalty box while playing mostly defense. At the end of the 2003 season, Brown became an unrestricted free agent. He was signed to a one-year contract, for $500,000, by the New Jersey Devils on July 24, 2003.
Early in the 2003-04 season, Brown was sent briefly to the Devils' Albany River Rats minor-league team. Accepting his new assignment with a characteristic positive attitude, he was quickly recalled to the parent team, at one point driving through a major blizzard to rejoin them. He got into 39 games with the playoff-bound Devils, shaving his penalty time to 44 minutes.
Off the ice, Brown kept busy as a mentor to younger black players, working with Willie O'Ree, who had become director of youth development for the NHL's Diversity Task Force, and instructing young skaters as a participant in New York's Hockey in Harlem program. During the 2004-05 strike, he was a member of a sports all-star team that raised funds for the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay for Life. Still well under 30 years old, he needed just one more defensive or offensive spark to his game in order to advance to the top levels of hockey stardom.
Boston Globe, September 28, 2002, p. F9; November 1, 2002, p. D1; January 26, 2003, p. C14.
Boston Herald, September 24, 2002, p. 75; October 6, 2002, p. B31; November 4, 2002, p. 88.
Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), December 20, 2001, p. A1.
Jet, November 10, 2003, p. 46.
Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel, February 15, 1996, p. C1.
Providence Journal-Bulletin, March 12, 2003, p. D5.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), September 23, 2003, p. S2; October 22, 2003, p. S6.
Times Union (Albany, NY), December 12, 2003, p. C2.
USA Today, January 10, 2001, p. C1.
"Sean Brown," National Hockey League Players Association, www.nhlpa.com/WebStates/PlayerBiography.asp?ID=688 (March 2, 2005).
"Sean Brown," New Jersey Devils, www.newjerseydevils.com (March 2, 2005).
"Sean Brown," Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/hockey/nhl/players/1537 (March 2, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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