Branks leaving his boys

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:43 AM ET

After 38 years, the London Knights are going to have to find someone else to do their laundry.

Don Brankley, a man who is as much the face of the Knights as any of their star players, will be leaving his job as head trainer at the end of the 2007-08 season.

Brankley has been a fixture in the dressing room. He's the only full-time trainer the Knight have ever had. He's the longest-serving trainer in the Ontario Hockey League and likely one of the longest-serving trainers in any sport.

Yet ask him what's happening and his response is always the same -- "I just do the laundry."

But if you ran a laundry list of what he really does, trainer, confessor, confidant, advisor, psychologist, philanthropist and fashion consultant would all be on it.

"I guess you could check off all those boxes," said Brankley.

Unique doesn't come close to describing him.

"Every year I do the same thing. I say let's see what it brings. I'll be 60 years old in February. I don't know when I decided. (The organization and I) just talked about it. The seasons are really long. By the end of the season, I'm exhausted. There's a lot of pressure. I thought, after taking care of people for 38 years, maybe it's time to take care of myself a few years."

For Brankley, this was never just a job, it was a vocation. He spent the first 31 years of his tenure living in the London Gardens/Ice House dressing room. The John Labatt Centre hasn't been his official residence these past years, but it may as well be with all the time he spends there.

You won't get much of an argument when you say no one takes care of a hockey team and "Branks Boys," as well as Branks.

The list of players who keep in touch with Branks is long and impressive.

His capacity for hard work, dedication and reliability is unquestioned. He'll be the first to tell you that his life has been the London Knights.

"I'm surrounded by memories," he said, pointing to the hundreds of photographs in his dressing room.

Ask him about a date or a player and the first thing he'll say, "I'd have to look at the picture. Every picture in here I can go on with stories about them forever.

"The memories have never stopped from the first minute I came to London (from his native Capreol in Northern Ontario). Now maybe I'll have the chance to sit back and think about them. Memories are something you have to stop and take time to think about. I've never had time to do that."

Brankley says he hasn't given much thought yet to what the future holds.

"I know it will be strange when the last playoff game is over. The saddest moment for me was when I walked out of the Ice House. That might be magnified 10 times.

"I've seriously not sat down and thought about it. I've always been one to make decisions quickly. I made a decision to come here quickly and never regretted it. I turned down two NHL jobs and never regretted it.

"So I guess when I make this decision, I won't regret it. I guess I could have stayed for 40 years, but 38 is enough. I don't think anyone is going to touch this record. The watch they give you at the end never gets any bigger."

Brankley says the years have flown by. He says he remembers clearly the first day he came to the London Gardens in 1970. He was called on a Friday to start the job on a Monday. He had already been accepted into Laurentian University, but opted for the Knights.

"General manager Doug Pratt showed me around and gave me the key to the arena," said Brankley, who thought that was a pretty good thing. "He leaves, I put the key in the lock and break it off. It was an old key. Since then I've broken a lot of things -- most of the records for how long a trainer has been around."

Brankley says he's talked this over with Mark Hunter, Knights co-owner and general manager, and Hunter told him he could stay as long as he wanted.

Branks will be involved in the hiring of his replacement.

As his final year progresses, enough Brankley stories will surface to fill a book. But the most important thing will always be his players.

"I've been lucky. There hasn't been one player I can honestly say I didn't like."

Brankley is always hesitant about focusing on any one player. But when pushed, he lists Pat Kane as the most talented player he's seen, Louie DeBrusk as the toughest, Vern Stenlund the smartest, Brandon Prust the most personable, Gene Chiarello the bravest and Greg Smyth the most "lovably unpredictable."

Branks won't talk about a favourite player, but it's no secret he has special relationships with Brendan Shanahan, Rick Nash and Dino Ciccarelli.

"Rick Nash said to me once, 'Brendan's your all-time favourite.' I said to him, 'I don't have an all-time favourite because it wouldn't be fair.' He said to me, 'Branks, can I be your all-time favourite?' I said, 'no one's really applied for it. If you want to be, you can be.'

"When we e-mail, he signs it 'Rick your ATF (all-time favourite.' Somehow Brendan hears that story. During the Memorial Cup, someone interviewed Brendan on a story about me. The guy says, 'so, you're Branks' all-time favourite?' and Brendan says, 'no, that's Rick Nash.' "

Brankley and the NHL star continue to have a close relationship. Shanahan bought him a truck 10 years ago, a truck Branks still drives. He was one of the few hockey people who attended Shanahan's wedding. It's a relationship that began the day Shanahan was drafted by the Knights.

"I went to get him in the stands, he was chewing gum. He saw me coming and stuck the gum in his pants pocket," Brankley recalled. "I introduced him to everyone at the table. After a while I leaned over and said to him, 'Brendan, never wear white socks with a black suit.'

"About the fourth round, standing there waiting for one of the kids to come down, Brendan comes over and says 'Branks, look.' He told his parents what I'd said. They went to the store and bought him black socks.

"Years later he's on the cover of GQ magazine for how well he dresses."

Brankley's durability is beyond belief. In all his years, he's missed only five games -- two because of suspension and three when he was with the Canadian team at the world junior championship.

He never misses practice. Remarkable, considering the hours he keeps, his diet and the travel schedule.

"I've never been sick, ever. I've never called in sick but then again, I'd have to call out sick because where else would I be?

"I'm the most unhealthy person you'd ever meet. I'm a meat and potatoes guy, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, coffee, chocolate bars, chips. I never eat anything green. I've never had a salad in my life.

"I tell my players to eat that -- but I never eat it."

Branks never married.

Even though he loves this city, he'll move back to Capreol when he's done. He's a history buff so he wants to travel, to see it live rather than just on the History or Discovery channels.

He admits he's missed things because of the life he chose to live. He calls his personal life a "casualty of my willingness to be dedicated to hockey."

"I have no regrets. I gave up my life to do what I do," he said. "If I came back in another life, I wouldn't like the word dedication. I don't go out. I just don't have time. Other than in hockey, I don't have a lot of friends my age.

"But the rewards have been phenomenal."

Branks knows news of his retirement will stun many people.

"I've always said I wanted to die here," he said, pointing to the dressing room.

"But hey, the year isn't over yet."


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