There are a lot of Canadian-born players in professional hockey. A big reason for this is the success of the three main junior leagues in developing players. On any given NHL roster, you can find a number of players from either the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL. However, there are also players that take a different junior route from Canada and even end up playing hockey in college.
That is just what Brandon Pirri did. Being from Toronto, the closest major junior league would be the Ontario Hockey League. Instead, he spent two years in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, closer to home. In his second season in the OJHL, he scored 94 points in just 44 games.
“I was smaller come my draft year for the OHL. I was drafted by Sudbury but it wasn’t really an option for me for the first couple years,” Pirri said of his decision to go to the OJHL. “I just figured staying at home and living with my family. I could spend more time with them. I also found a good program to prepare me for college hockey.”
With those numbers that he put up during the 2008-2009 season, he gained notice from NHL teams. He showed up at the 2009 draft and was not disappointed. The Chicago Blackhawks selected him with their second round pick.
“I went to the draft in Montreal as an 18 year old. You hope to hear your name called and it’s a long day,” Pirri said. “I was lucky, I didn’t end up waiting too long. My whole family was there. Then to be drafted by a storied team like Chicago, it’s exciting. It was a lot of fun.”
After being drafted by the Blackhawks, Pirri went to start his first season at RPI. It was a plan that he had had since after his first year of juniors in the OJHL when he was recruited.
“I always liked the idea of college. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going to a US school,” Pirri said. “Going to school for a year I got bigger and stronger and that’s what helped me make the jump to pro.”
RPI was a great experience for him in terms of growth and development. But, Pirri ultimately decided that it was best for him to leave after his first year. It was not a decision he made lightly but also one he would make again if he had to.
“For every kid, the dream is to play in the NHL. I just looked at it and I didn’t want to waste my opportunity,” Pirri said. “The option was there but it was a tough decision because my best friends go to school there. I had to jump ahead a little though.”
As tough as it was for Pirri to make the decision to leave college, he had a chance to follow his dream and he had to take it. Playing professional hockey was something he had always wanted. He started at a young age and finally felt like he was realizing his dreams.
“You know in Canada, you’re thrown on skates as soon as you can walk so I probably started playing around 3 or 4. Then I started having good success when I was drafted into the OHL,” Pirri said. “Until I was drafted into the NHL I didn’t really believe I could make a career out of it. It’s your dream, but you aren’t sure it’ll happen.”
Now, Pirri is coming off his third season in the Chicago organization, having spent the bulk of the time in the AHL with Rockford. This third season with the Rockford IceHogs is the most successful professional season he has had to date. Over 76 games, he had a team-leading 75 points. He also lead the team in assists with 53.
“I think the team just got hot. A lot of guys took charge and scored big goals for us and that’s when it makes things easy,” Pirri said of his season, not taking the credit for himself. “I just tried to give them the puck and let them do the rest. It’s a combination of a hot team and lines that worked for everyone.”
Even though Rockford missed the playoffs, Pirri thinks it was a successful year. They came together really well. “For a lot of guys, it was our third year there, at least for the core group. Then they brought in a guy like St. Pierre who helped a lot too,” Pirri said. “We were just really comfortable with each other and knew what we were doing. The chemistry was there and we took advantage of that.”
After the strong offensive season that he has had, Pirri hopes to continue to build on his success for next year. He is going into the final year of his initial contract with the Blackhawks and hopes to crack the NHL roster. He was in Chicago for their Stanley Cup run and now will go back to Toronto for a couple weeks before coming back to train with the Blackhawks staff.
“The roster in Chicago is something that’s hard to crack. At the same time, I have to keep doing what I’m doing. I had a good year this year,” Pirri said about making the Blackhawks. “Consistence is the biggest thing for me to get up there because every day you would be playing at the top level in the world. That’s something that I have to work on that will help me in the long run.”
The whole experience this past year was great for Pirri. He got a chance to dress in a game with Chicago during the regular season. Then, during the postseason, he got to be at the United Center to watch as his team marched on to become Stanley Cup Champions. The city of Chicago has been an excellent hockey community that he has thoroughly enjoyed playing in.
“Chicago is a great hockey market, the whole city is behind the team here especially in the playoffs. It’s exciting and there’s definitely a large buzz in the city,” Pirri said of his time in the Blackhawks organization so far. “Even as far as Rockford, which is an hour and a half away, everyone is going out to bars and restaurants to watch. It’s even been exciting for the town of Rockford.”
Throughout his whole hockey career, Pirri still sites his parents has having the greatest influence on him as a player. He understands that he might not even have these chances to follow his dreams were it not for them supporting him every step of the way. Family is important to him and he truly gives thanks for all the help.
“They had to drive me to the rink every day for practice and they made some sacrifices. They supported me through the good times and the times that didn’t turn out so well. They had a huge influence on me and helped me. I have to give all the thanks to them,” Pirri said. “They had to switch around their work schedules and travel and all that. It’s a big sacrifice, but I was lucky to have two great parents who were so supportive.”
Shortly, Pirri will be getting to work with offseason training now that the Stanley Cup Finals are over. However, now that he has seen the atmosphere of a Final, he hopes to be on a team that hoists the Stanley Cup as well instead of just watching. Next season could find him getting much more playing time in Chicago if he works hard and makes a good impression during training camp in the fall. Either way, Brandon Pirri is certainly a talented young player to keep an eye on.
Photo Credit: Rockford IceHogs