Jan 30, 2017

This January, like every other, brings a break in American Hockey League business. It's All-Star Classic Weekend.  At this year's host city Allentown, Pennsylvania, by no coincidence there's a connection with the Utica Comets beyond the team's selected two representatives.

Aside with Comets' Jordan Subban and Alexandre Grenier having their tickets punched for the Classic, there is a three-day window where players, coaching staff, and others involved on the front-line with the team, in particular, receive a mid-season break. 

For many, this is time to escape, mentally and physically from the daily grind of long hours and physical punishment required of hockey. But, in-between enjoying their getaways, taking some time to check in on the skills competition and game at PPL Center is a certainty.

Back on December 12, the AHL announced its honorary co-captains for Classic Weekend. Along with Terry Murray, longtime NHL sniper Danny Briere was chosen.

Briere's selection is intriguing on a couple fronts.

Skating in parts of 18 NHL seasons, it is the six that Briere spent wearing a Philadelphia Flyers' jersey is why he is in Allentown. Allentown, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, is where the Flyers' AHL affiliate develop their skills.

Briere's exceptionalism on NHL ice is well documented. 696 points in 973 regular season games.

The starting line for the Gatineau (QC) native to the NHL began in Springfield, Massachusetts during the 1997-98 season. Drafted in the first round in 1996 by the Phoenix Coyotes, it would be during Briere's second campaign with the Flacons (98-99), when a connection with Utica is formed.

Briere's second season in pro hockey was Utica Comets' president Robert Esche's first – also drafted by the Coyotes in 1996 (sixth round), and member of the Falcons.

A tight friendship was formed then by a couple 20-year-olds that remains as solid today.

"With Rob, I could go on for a longtime," Briere says of their times shared, in rinks and beyond, since first becoming teammates in western Massachusetts. "We're real close. We lived together in Springfield. He took care of me."

The closeness between Briere and the young goalie from Whitesboro (NY) solidified further, when both were called up to Phoenix. This lasted until the 2001-02 season, the last in which both Briere and Esche would participate in the Phoenix-Springfield shuttle. According to this year's Classic co-captain, the two were inseparable.

"We had such good times. My kids still talk about "Chico" (Esche's nickname from his playing days when he labeled his sticks R. Esche). He's a great friend who I respect a lot. Our families were together in Phoenix, and we have many happy memories. When we were in Springfield, Rob and I were wrestling and he broke my finger."

And when Briere and Esche were joined by the hip with the Coyotes, for two of those seasons, Comets' coach Travis Green was their teammate.

Green offered veteran leadership to Phoenix's "kids" during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 seasons.

"He (Briere) was really amazing for a guy some wrote off," said Green. "Danny had a lot of heart on the ice and is a great person off of it. Early in his career, you could see Danny had fight in him. He's a good example for younger players today."

Green's compliments towards his former teammate don't go unanswered. When Briere recalls his time spent more than a decade ago with the Comets' coach, he has happy memories to share. "Travis was the jokester around the dressing room. I learned a lot from watching him. He was a great shooter. I loved watching him shoot the puck every day. What a sweeping wrister."

Along with the Comets' president and coach's link to Briere, there's a third link to what truly was an amazing career, that began in Springfield and ended with the Colorado Avalanche two seasons back. Pat Conacher, Utica's Director of Hockey Operations, is another link to the diminutive center's storied career.

Conacher, who collected a Stanley Cup ring in 1984 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, was an assistant coach on Bob Francis' staff for two seasons ('01-'03) in Phoenix. Esche was with the team for one of the two seasons, and Briere on the roster for both. Conacher's voice demonstrates tremendous pride in remembering his position to see the growth of a 5'10’’ 180-pound kid just looking for a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL full-time.

"Danny was fearless. Once he got the chance, there was no stopping him. He was a small player and he had to prove every day that he belonged. The guy wanted the puck. He wanted to score goals. Danny made up for size in his dedication to the game. Once he put it together, (Danny) wasn't going to be denied. I remember how late he wanted to stay after practice and work on his game. It was my pleasure to work with him."

Putting in extra work to improve his game is something Briere, too, has fond memories of with Conacher.

"Pat and I had a lot of time together early in my career. I wasn't playing so much. Pat was a skills coach, and after practice, the two of us would stay late and work," Briere explains. "He (Conacher) was a great help. Pat had me always going 100 miles-per-hour."

Tagging Esche, Green, and Conacher as "three great gentlemen", Briere's association with his Comets' connection remains a "cool' experience in progress. 

Although Briere's wife and children won't be in attendance for the Classic (they are traveling for a hockey tournament), along with Comets' colors prevalent on the ice, in part, Utica's "brain trust" played a hand in his reaching the point of being an honorary captain this weekend.

Written by Don Laible

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