Tim Branham, the young, second-year coach of the Utah Grizzlies hockey club, has just finished a morning practice in which he actually got out on the ice and mixed it up a little with his players. Sitting in his office, he is asked how he likes coaching, and he says, “It fills a void. It fills the need.”
The void of not playing.
If not for the concussions, he might still be playing, but here he is, 33 years old, still finding a way to be in the game.
Branham spent nearly 25 years playing hockey, rising to the American Hockey League, one step away from the National Hockey League. And then he was finished because of a series of concussions, the last of which occurred in an on-ice fight. He tried life without the game for a couple of years only to return.
To fill the void, he became an assistant coach for the Reading (Pa.) Royals of the ECHL, and after three years he became a hot commodity. “There were nine teams looking for coaches and nine teams wanted him,” says Adrian Denny, the Grizzlies’ vice president of communications.
The Grizzlies were one of those teams looking for a coach in 2013, and as they searched for candidates Branham’s name kept coming up. As it turned out, they didn’t have to seek him out. When Branham heard of the job opening, he called the Grizzlies.
“I had played here (for Reading) and had seen the facilities, and my friends and people in the front office had good things to say about Utah,” he says. “I had been sending my resume to (CEO) Kevin Bruder for three years prior to that. So I sent him my resume again.”
Hired as coach and general manager in July of 2013, Branham rewarded the Grizzlies with the team’s best record (38-24-9) in 14 years and its best attendance in a decade.
Like most minor-league coaches, Branham wears many hats as coach and GM. His duties have included everything from moving furniture into players’ apartments to painting the locker room walls to coordinating coach and player appearances in the community to negotiating an affiliation with the Anaheim Ducks of the NHL. His search for players is almost nonstop since they are subject to being called up to the parent club.
According to Denny, one of the things that attracted the Grizzlies to Branham was his insistence on recruiting “high-character” players and for being involved in the community. Since minor-league hockey teams don’t have a guaranteed audience a la the Utah Jazz, they do clinics, school assemblies, youth hockey leagues and anything else to raise awareness in the community. To do that, Branham thinks he needs players who are good on and off the ice. Branham signs players mostly from the college ranks, rather than high schools, because they are more mature. This year’s roster includes seven former collegiate team captains and seven academic All-Americans.
“Recruiting lasts 365 days a year,” says Branham. “You’ve go to know who’s out there. I’m on the phone all the time or looking at transactions to see where players are. It’s 24-7.”
Branham began playing hockey in Eagle River, Wisconsin, at the age of 5. He was 12 when he and his brother and mother moved to Madison for a higher-level of hockey, while his father remained behind with two daughters to run his business. They settled in an apartment in Madison, and his father visited on weekends.
It was the first of many moves for Branham and none would take him home again. As he made his way in the youth hockey ranks, he moved to Illinois, back to Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota, back to Colorado, back to Minnesota, and Michigan, attending six different high schools. After graduating from high school he had to decide whether to accept one of the many college scholarships he had been offered or turn professional (he had been drafted by the Ontario Hockey League). He chose the latter. In 2000, he was drafted in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft, 93rd overall. He played two seasons in the AHL, but returned to the ECHL.
During the 2004-05 season, while playing for the Florida Everglades, he was slammed into the boards and suffered a concussion. He suffered a second concussion that season when he took a high stick under the chin. “I probably didn’t sit out long enough and that’s why I got the second one,” he says. The coup de grace occurred when he suffered at third concussion after his head hit the glass during an on-ice fight.
“From there, I decided to stop playing,” he says. “I had a headache for a month straight. After a year the symptoms went away.”
Out of hockey, he took a job as a general contractor, building homes in Florida while brooding about life away from hockey. It was the first time since he was 4 that he hadn’t played the game, and he struggled without it. For a year he wouldn’t even let himself watch hockey on TV.
“I was upset because of the injury,” he says. “I took it hard. When you do something your whole life and then you can’t do it because of injury .”
After two years away from the game, he made a comeback in 2007 and played two more seasons, mostly in the ECHL. He ended his playing career with the Reading Royals and tried to leave the game again. He applied for a firefighting academy and had already been accepted when Reading offered him a coaching job. He couldn’t say no.
“It came down to coaching and firefighting,” he says. “When you do something your entire life, it’s tough to give it up.”
He had actually been coaching for years — in 2003, he started Branham Hockey Camps in Wisconsin (he still returns there every summer to run the camps). He coached for three years in Reading, helping the team win the ECHL championship in 2013 and playing a role in sending 70 players to the AHL.
Now he is a head coach and general manager in professional hockey, filling the void. “I’m very fortunate to be on the ice every day and work with these players,” he says. “To help them achieve their goals and win is something I enjoy.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]