Longtime Knights trainer remembered for all the other things he did

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They came to celebrate the life of a man who committed his life to the boys who wore the green and gold of the London Knights.

Some of those boys, now men, joined hundreds of others in recalling the life of Don Brankley, the Knights long-time trainer who died in hospital in Sudbury almost a month ago at the age of 69. The celebration of life, put on by the Knights and the team’s alumni association, was held at Budweiser Gardens on Tuesday night as many alumni along with about 200 fans listened to “Branks” being honoured.

Brankley, from Capreol just outside Sudbury, spent 38 years (1970-2008), as the Knights trainer, surrogate father, advisor and mentor. If you were a player, Brankley would stop at nothing to make their time as a Knight as successful and painless as possible.

The crowd was in many ways a who’s who of junior and professional hockey, players Brankley helped in their hockey lives.

Among them were Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli, Corey Perry, Brandon Prust, Reggie Thomas senior and junior, former coaches Gary Agnew, George Burnett, Knights co-owners Mark Hunter, Dale Hunter and Basil McRae; other former players Dave Simpson, Tom Kostopoulos, David Hutchison, Murray Nystrom, David Bolland, Trevor Dam, Dennis Maruk and Tim Taylor.

Former captain Danny Syvret, the first Knight to hold a Memorial Cup in victory, was among the speakers, as was former Knight and now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs Brendan Shanahan. Brankley’s sister Sharon Brazeau also spoke.

Brankley was a colourful character, beloved at home and hated in most other rinks. The leather-lunged chant of “water boy” would reverberate around most arenas when Brankley made his appearance. But as a testament to how larger than life he had become, his death caused an outpouring of sadness on social media from many of those fans who gave him grief during a game.

He was also a man that took a leading role in moving the profession of trainer forward.

There was no doubting the enduring message that Brankley left during his life and that was that he was a “father figure” to his players. He also had an unwavering loyalty to the Knights and everything they represented.

Syvret talked about the order and organization in the dressing room and how things were done Brankley’s way.

“The sweaters were hung so the Knights logo always faced forward,” Syvret said. “Branks would say that was because the logo was far more important than the name or number on the back of the sweater.”

Canadian Hockey League president David Branch spoke about Brankley’s work with trainers. Branch said he had an “incredible relationship” with Brankley, that he was a “mentor. I saw his courage; I saw his foresight.”

“He taught me so many things but the one thing he taught me that he wanted to make sure I understood was that the most important person in the game was the player.”

Branch also had his share of discussions with Brankley over Brankley’s rather in-your-face support of his team.

There was one game when Brankley came on the ice to treat a player during a bench-clearing brawl and he wound up pushing a couple of players.

“At that time there was no film of the game but it was reported in the newspaper. He took full responsibility for what he did,” Branch said. “It was the first and only time I’ve had to suspend a trainer in the OHL.”

Shanahan, Ciccarelli, Perry were among the players on Brankley’s list of favourites, although with Brankley the word favourite was all relative.

Shanahan remember the first time he met Brankley after he’d been drafted by the Knights. The OHL draft then was conducted like the NHL draft is conducted today.

“I was in a bit of a daze,” Shanahan said. “I shook hands with everyone and sat down at the table. They asked me a few questions and went on to the next pick. The guy sitting next to me was Don Brankley. He looked at me and said ‘Hey, white socks do not ever go with a suit.’ He was teaching even then.”

Shanahan called Brankley the Peter Pan of hockey trainers, someone who “stopped aging.”

Shanahan found out quickly what a stickler Brankley was for accuracy and details.

“I remember one day I wrote something to him and spelt his name wrong,” Shanahan said. “A few days later we played in Kitchener and after the game he was all excited to show me the Kitchener program. Somehow he’d gotten them to spell my name Brenda Shanahan.”

Like all the players that Brankley helped, Shanahan talked about how understanding he was.

“You’re young, lonely and homesick,” he said. “He knew what each guy needed.”

Shanahan finished the night by stating the obvious.

“There will never by any one else like him.”

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