STEINBACH, MB – Braden Purtill is having a blast.
He’s the captain of a first place team, he’s been Manitoba Junior Hockey League player of the week twice this season, he’s second in the league in scoring and he’s playing on a first-place team that came out of the Christmas break with a sparkling record of 30-7-1.
It’s a far cry from where he was midway through the 2015-16 season.
After a little more than 2 ½ seasons in the Western Hockey League, Purtill was done. Hockey just wasn’t any fun anymore and he was tired of it all. After struggling through nearly three years of injuries and disappointment in the WHL, Purtill told his coaches in Red Deer that he was calling it quits and heading home to Winnipeg.
“I spent three years in the Western League but I had a lot of injury problems and a couple of concussions in one year,” said Purtill, just outside the team’s locker room in the T.G. Smith Centre in Steinbach. “It just wasn’t going very well for me and it reached a point where hockey wasn’t fun and wasn’t that important to me so I thought, ‘Well I’m just going to go home and focus on the rest of my life.’
“I was done. But sure enough, I got a call from Paul (Dyck) and we chatted for a couple of hours one evening and now that I’m here, I love the game again. It’s been great ever since I got the call from Paul. And that’s all it took. Just one good conversation with Paul and the game is fun again.”
It’s hard to imagine Purtill losing his love for the game, however so briefly. Through the Christmas break this season, the 6-foot, 190-pound centre had 24 goals and 54 points in just 37 games. He was second in the league in scoring ad was not only the captain of a first-place team, but a guy who his coaches’ and teammates’ full support.
“For the hockey fan that watched hockey in the 80s or 90s, when you watch Braden Purtill you think of Mark Messier,” said Pistons head coach and GM Paul Dyck. “That’s who he reminds me of. He’s kind of an old school captain, but he also plays a 200-foot game. He plays a heavy game, he skates well and, really, he does everything well.
“He’s vocal when he needs to be, but he primarily he leads by example. When he joined us last year, it was evident early on that he was very professional in his preparation. He’s the first one at the rink for practice, first one here for games. When he arrives here he is focused on the task at hand for that day. Making him captain was an easy choice for us. We identified him as captain earlier than we ever have before. In fact, we named him captain before training camp began.
“We’re pretty confident in our choice. Seeing how he performed in last year’s playoffs and seeing how he performed in the room and how he led us in the challenging times during the season. There was really never any question in our minds.”
For Purtill, being captain of the Pistons is just another step on a long hockey road. The 20-year-old Winnipegger can’t remember a time – other than that short period during the 2015-16 season – when the game wasn’t a big part of his life.
“I grew up in Transcona and had an older brother (Justin Purtill, a former MMJHL star) who was playing hockey so I was just always at the rink,” he said. “I loved being there and I fell in love with the game at a young age. No one could take me away from the rink.
“I started skating when I was four and started hockey when I was five in Timbits. I played minor hockey in Transcona. Played for the East End Wings, the South Transcona Vikings and Oxford Heights Community Club. At 11, I went to Double A Railcats and then I age-advanced to Triple A Sharks Bantam and at 15 moved up to the Thrashers and then went to the WHL with Tri-City (he was a third-round pick of the Americans –46th overall -- in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft) at 16. My dad was a player and my brother was a player so hockey’s in the family.”
Indeed, in fact for Purtill, family as played the most important role of all in his hockey life.
“My parents (Gail and Mitch Purtill) have been everything to me,” he said without hesitation. “They’ve sacrificed so much for my brother and me, just getting us to the rink. They put out the money for for us to play, too. I can’t thank them enough.”
Meanwhile, Purtill is having fun again.
“Yeah, it’s fun being the captain with these guys. My experience with the captains I’ve had during my career is that they all tried to make it fun and that’s my goal here. I just want this group to enjoy the experience. The guys all get along great with each other and it’s really just a lot of fun coming to the rink every day.
“And we have a really good team. We’re all excited about the rest of the season. It all comes down to the basics and we have a really hard-working team. That’s what will make us successful. When we come to the rink to practice, everyone is focused and everyone is engaged. Even away from the rink, we try to do as much as we can together. We’re excited about the next few months here.”
And now, for the first time in years, Purtill is excited about the game. He’s no longer talking about giving it up. Instead, he’s talking about a future in the game.
“I want to play next year,” he said. “Right now, I’m thinking about playing CIS – I do have some WHL education money -- but if I get the chance to play pro, I’ll take it. Paul knows so many people in the game, he’s helping me now. For a guy who, two years ago, had given up the game, I’m now excited about playing for as long as I possibly can.”
Scott Taylor, Manitoba Post
Photos by James Carey Lauder
Story was originally published in Game On Magazine, Manitoba's only hockey magazine. Pick up your copy at any area arena's.