Sugden's final chance

Brandon Sugden is fighting to play in the NHL while his father is fighting to stay alive. (Sun...

Brandon Sugden is fighting to play in the NHL while his father is fighting to stay alive. (Sun Media/Stan Behal)

JOE WARMINGTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Brandon Sugden's goal is to make the NHL so that his terminally ill dad can share achieving his dream.

His father Travis' dream is to stay alive long enough to see him do that.

And when an invitation to the New York Islanders' training camp came, it was looking like it all very well could. The 30-year-old Brandon vowed if he made the team he would donate one-third of every pay cheque to the Princess Margaret Hospital.

"They have done such an amazing job treating my dad's cancer," said an emotional Brandon. "I appreciate all of the doctors, nurses and staff."

There was elation for the first time in a while in the Sugdens' Toronto home. Then came the snag. Some red tape has got in the way of this inspiring story.

This is a tale about a father and son fighting together -- and for one and other.

"It's a pact I have with my dad," says Brandon, a one-time Maple Leaf draft pick. "I promised him that I would fight to make the NHL as long as he keeps fighting his cancer."

The 30-year-old defenceman and enforcer and his 64-year-old father are still working on it. Both men of great faith who refuse to give up -- despite major roadblocks clearly in their way.

The story starts in November 2006 when Brandon, a defenceman with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch, decided to pack in a 10-year minor league hockey career and come home to Toronto to his pregnant wife and to help his ailing dad with the family business.

'DREAM WAS OVER'

"The NHL was just out of the lockout and the word was most teams were moving away from enforcers," Brandon said in an interview after a skate with other pro players yesterday at St. Michael's Arena, where he once played for the Buzzers. "I decided the dream was over."

Without understanding its future ramifications he signed retirement papers with the Columbus Blue Jackets, to whom he was contracted, that were sent to the National Hockey League.

He came north and worked at his family's Travis Fashion Tag and Label with his dad, who it turned out had cancer. It has spread to his liver and he is told it is terminal. On weekends, he drove down to Montreal to play with semi-pro LNHA's St. Jean Chiefs -- a league (and team) known for hockey fights.

"I know what my job is," said Brandon, who in 2001 was suspended for life from hockey for an incident he regrets in the East Coast Hockey League in which he lost his temper and threw a stick in the crowd.

No one was hurt and he was reinstated after a year in which he did some growing up. "I am not the same kid I was then," he said, taking pride in being nominated by his teammates as AHL humanitarian player of the year.

THROWS THEM WELL

But the guy known as Brandon "Sugar" Sugden knows what he is good at -- and it is not scoring goals. "The saying is when a crusher becomes a rusher, he will soon become an usher," laughs Brandon, some of whose fights can be viewed on YouTube.

He can throw them pretty good and he caught the eye of the Islanders. "I was excited," said Brandon. "They have treated me great and told me if I came into camp in shape I had a good shot to make it."

It would have been his ninth NHL camp. So close and yet so far. He has never played in an NHL game. He believes this year is his best ever shot. TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger, who also hosts Leaf's Lunch on AM 640 with Bill Watters, agrees. "I have talked to a number of NHL people and they say he is good enough to play in the NHL and that he is a fearsome enforcer."

But there's a problem. The rules of the collective bargain ing agreement between the NHL and NHLPA state if you sign your retirement papers and you want reinstatement, you must sit out one full season of pro hockey first.

The dilemma is that the 6-foot-4, 235 pounder played in 40 games in the Quebec fighting league last year. And he got paid per game -- totalling about $25,000. Although there is some money, it's not near the NHL, AHL, ECHL or leagues in Europe in terms of talent level. "It's kind of a part-time thing," said Brandon. "None of the guys really consider themselves playing professional hockey."

But, according to the NHL, it is professional hockey. Brandon's agent Scott Nornton hated to break the news to him and his dad when he was informed by the Islanders that because of this technicality, he could not legally attend the camp.

"I didn't tell my dad right away," said Brandon. "I didn't want to tell him."

But all involved understand there is no bad guy in this.

Just bureaucracy and rules meant to protect the integrity of the game and preventing players from retiring from one team and then signing for more money with another. "I understand the reason for the rule but I don't think it was put in for a player in Brandon's situation," said Norton.

Perhaps there could be an exception. Most seem to be sympathetic and 800 people have signed a petition on BrandonSugden.com. "We sent a letter to the Blue Jackets and they agreed to release him from their retirement list, no problem," he said. "The next step was for the other 29 teams to okay it."

SOMETIMES IT 'STINKS'

Four, says Norton, did not. It had to be unanimous. "As I told Brandon, if a team can keep you out of a game against them, why not?"

Dreger also understands the rule but says in this case it "stinks" and is hoping they will reconsider. "It's unfortunate. You have to feel for him, and especially the story of he and his dad."

Watters made the excellent point that it doesn't seem fair to stop a man "from earning a living."

Last night the players' union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said "the NHLPA has consulted on this matter with Brandon and his agent over the last several days and will continue to do everything we can to help Brandon get his shot at making an NHL roster."

Who knows, maybe some dreams still might come true. The Sugdens are certainly up for the battle even though they understand there are no guarantees.

Either way, they are determined to battle together.

"I will not quit and neither will my dad."


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