Mellower Branks savouring heights

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Don Brankley shudders slightly when the numbers are mentioned.

The numbers 3-60-3 sound like a fertilizer product and, in a crude way, they were. They signified the horrible wins, losses and ties total the London Knights managed just nine seasons ago, so it's safe to say Brankley, in his 35 seasons as team trainer, is savouring the moment now.

During his tenure, Brankley has missed just four games when he was with the world junior team -- "I was serving my country" -- and has seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But the ugliness of that 60-defeat 1995-96 season was erased by the 59 wins the record-breaking Knights put together in this, the year of their first Memorial Cup appearance.

"I'm ecstatic, but know who I'm really happy for?" Branks said the other day. "I'm happiest for the fans who've been with us all the years I've been here."

Brankley initially turned up in London to consider a Knights' offer after spending two seasons as trainer with the Northern Ontario Hockey League's Chelmsford Canadiens.

"I haven't made up my mind yet -- I don't want to make an irrational decision," he quipped.

In that time, the even- tempered Brankley has become somewhat more than a trainer. He has evolved into a surrogate parent, psychologist, friend and interest-free bank for the revolving cast of teenagers coming through the organization.

He decided to drop his role as propaganda minister, through which he drove opposing players and fans into a frenzy with a litany of derisive commentary unmatched in hockey. Now vice-president of the NHL, the Peterborough Petes' Colin Campbell once slammed his stick down on Brankley's hand during warm-up as Brankley leaned on the boards pretending the painful whack didn't hurt.

Windsor Arena to Brankley was what Carnegie Hall is to an entertainer. It was there, where fans always raised chants of "water boy" at the sight of him, the creative heckler did his finest work.

But he has mellowed since the days fans in opposing rinks wanted to murder him.

"Changing times," he said of the elimination of his baiting. "It's not politically correct. It was useful when we didn't have good clubs, though."

It had become such a part of the Knights' scene that opposing players, if they weren't getting verbally roughed up by Brankley, wondered if they weren't playing well.

There is one area the most humorous, loyal and dedicated member of the club also is the most mysterious. At the old Ice House, Brankley resided in the trainer's room much of the time. Is he as close to his work at the John Labatt Centre?

"I won't go there," he says, dropping the topic.

Where Brankley will go is out in public, which he avoided during that dreadful '95-'96 season because he didn't want to encounter any fans. If he has time nowadays, that is.

A lot of it these days is spent handling the new demands of a hot team that has become a national story. Never in franchise history has there been such a call for London Knights memorabilia.

The clamouring for autographed jerseys and sticks from fans and fund-raisers has reached a level that required Brankley to set up an assembly line in an unused dressing room, where he sorts and folds everything for delivery or pickup.

It began last year, when the Knights broke through as a legitimate contender. It has simply multiplied this season as a result of an even better team and the certainty of a Memorial Cup berth as host team in May.

If the Knights get to hoist the Cup when it's over, it will be the players, coaches and scouting staff who get first dibs. Trainers always deserve a hand in it, too.

This trainer more than most.


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