Basil McRae - London Knights Owner
Brendan Shanahan - Toronto Maple Leafs President
Pete James - Godfather of Sports
Tons of people filed into Budweiser Gardens at 6pm Tuesday evening to celebrate the life of the man who served as a part of the London Knights training staff for 38 years in Don “Branks” Brankley. Instead of going to Laurentian University to Major in History, which he originally intended to do, he instead boarded a train to London to join the local OHL team in only its third year of existence as its full-time trainer and would quickly become the backbone to the franchise. As the Rob Ramage’s, Brendan Shanahan’s, Rico Fata’s, Rick Nash’s and Patrick Kane’s came to the Forest City and left, Don Brankley remained, being the laces holding the franchise’s skates together for a hockey driven community until his retirement in 2008. After passing away at the age of 69 in Sudbury last months, the London Knight’s extended family, along with the city, were heartbroken. People near and far mourned for a man whose banner already hung from the rafters as recognition for a lifetime of hard-work dedicated to a franchise adored by its community. Tuesday evening however was not about being struck with grief over the loss of a loved one, but a celebration of the life of a man who meant so much to everyone.
As fans came through the main gate at the arena, they were able to sign a memorial book and banner to express their appreciation before taking to their seats. The voice of the London Knights for the last 17 years Mike Stubbs did a masterful job of emceeing the event, as members of Don’s family, CHL Commissioner David Branch, along with numerous faces from the franchise’s past and present took to the podium to say their appreciate for man sadly no longer with us.
Don’s sister Sharon Brazeau was the first guest of honor to speak on the night, she immediately thanked the people who showed up in loving memory of her brother. She shined light on the man outside of the hockey world, a childhood prankster who was a big fan of Elvis that turned into the ‘cool uncle’ with a TransAm, who always took care of his family. Joking about how Don “made us all into nighthawks” playing cards until the wee hours, while fighting back tears she ended her speech by saying “the waterboy has left the building and gone to do laundry somewhere else.”
The man who captained the London Knight’s to their first ever OHL and Memorial Cup Championship Danny Syvret followed Sharon by giving a player’s perspective on Don. How he instilled rules which stuck with players such as; not walking on the team logo in the dressing room, not celebrating goals while on a winning streak or being clean shaven instead of rocking the usual playoff beards. How he wasn’t afraid to give a hard open hand slap to the back of the head of guys like Brandon Prust or Robbie Schremp, but tended to lighten the lash with the likes of Corey Perry when they steered off the path. Danny hit home the message that Don was a father figure to the players in the locker room, who was “one of the boys, but always looking over us.”
Kitchener Rangers Head Trainer Dan Lebold was originally not schedule to speak at the ceremony, but made a great decision to contact organizers to talk on behalf of the league’s trainers. He spoke about how Branks was a revolutionary type of person, who helped create the first league trainers guild of sorts, which would later become the official OHL trainers meetings. How he was always putting the players first and wanted the group of trainers to figure out how to better serve the players of the league. He recalled a tremendous story of the size of Don’s heart during a Kitchener/London playoff battle, where a Ranger player had forgotten his 8 ½ sized skates, forcing himself to reach out to Don in desperation minutes before warm-ups. He quickly presented Dan with Dave Bolland’s 8 ½ sized extra skates he had, so that the Kitchener player could compete, putting the player first, no matter the sweater (never called a jersey by Don).
A man who’s banner hangs directly beside Brankley’s at Budweiser Gardens, recognized as the Godfather of Sports in the city Pete James was actually there the day Don Brankley came to London. He conveyed how the soft-spoken Northern Ontario native in 1970, eventually earned the right to be called “Mr. Knight”. How the trainer had a knack for telling reporters there was a story to scoop, without spilling the beans about what it was, only pointing in what direction in where to hunt. Mr. James was “astounded by the knowledge” Don had of every player who came through his dressing room, whether they were still in the hockey scene or not, during his broadcast segment with him called: Branks Boys. Truly missing a friend he would have over for dinners, Pete left the podium stating “sleep well buddy, God bless you.” A video tribute courtesy of local Rogers Cable TV followed with clips from players discussing the value of Don to them, along with the legend himself recalling his favorite Knights memories.
Following the video tribute was Part Owner and Alternate Governor of the London Knights Basil McRae, who also played three seasons with the team from 1978-81 with Don taking care of him. The current Director of Player Personnel for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets immediately talked about how Don would have been chirping him for not having any notes prepared and popped his collar like Elvis before continuing his speech. He recalled his first impression of Don, when he walked into his room during tryouts with at thick 70’s afro complaining about his helmet being uncomfortable. Only to get a mouthful in return about how he hadn’t made the team, nor earned the right to enter the room yet and finally “go get a haircut.” Many moons later when he was approached by the Hunter brothers to take part in ownership of the team, he didn’t think twice. Once the long process of obtaining the team was over with, the town was put on notice that the culture would be changing, the Knights would become a winning junior hockey franchise and nothing was untouchable in that change, except Don Brankley.
David Branch who’s been Canadian Hockey League President since 1996 recalled Don as a mentor, who demonstrated foresight and courage throughout his tenor, a man who stressed that the most important people in the league were the players. He joked about him being the only trainer he had to serve a 2-game suspension to after an on-ice incident in North Bay, when he got into a pushing match with the opposing players while out on the ice trying to attend to one of his own. How he admitted to the crime, despite there being no video evidence, showing the honor and respect of a true gentleman. The commissioner stressed how he would never make a deal with anyone in the league, but trusted Don Brankley enough to allow one or two things to slide over the years. Including an incident where an over-ager from Windsor was roughing up a young 16-year old for the Knights, where Don rushed from the bench to play ‘linesmen’ and break it up, that young kid for the Knights was Brendan Shanahan.
The 3x Stanley Cup Champion, former London Knight 1985-87 and current President and Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs Brendan Shanahan was the last guest of honor to speak. He remembered the first time meeting Don after being drafted by the Knights, being told “white socks don’t ever go with a suit.” How he recently put his shoes on the bench in a locker room, only to have this nagging feeling in his head until he placed them on the floor, shoes on the floor was a Branks’ rule instilled in him many years ago. He reminisced on the prankster that he was getting ‘Brenda Shanahan’ printed in an oppositions program, days after he misspelled Brankley name. How his loyalty to the community, the team and the crest, along with his ready to play attitude gave young players courage on those “cold, scary, dark nights”. The man who collected 1354 points in 1524 NHL games finished his speech off by stating “they broke the mold when they made Branks.”
It was an evening mixed with laughs and tears, but a clear display of what one man meant to a hockey team and a community. For those who were unable to attend the event, the family has requested donations to the London Knights Foundation – Don Brankley charitable fund in lieu of flowers. A reception was held after the ceremony, but regardless of when those left the arena, they left with a fond appreciation for the man Don "Branks" Brankley.