Have pads, will travel: the remarkable career of Fred Brathwaite

brathwaite

1972 was a watershed year for hockey. Among other things it saw the birth of the Edmonton Oilers (in the World Hockey Association), the Calgary Flames (in Atlanta), and the popularization of international hockey (in the infamous Summit Series). Appropriately enough, it also saw the birth of the hero of this little retrospective, whose remarkable career included time with both Battle of Alberta rivals as well as a boatload of international exposure.

Fred Brathwaite is a first-generation Canadian, born in Ottawa of Barbadian immigrants, the spectacularly-named St. Clair and Verstine Brathwaite. The Brathwaites moved to the suburb of Briargreen where they were reportedly the only black family in town. Freddy's dad later told the Toronto Sun that his son "couldn't even fake a Barbadian accent. He's as all-Canadian as you can get." Fred would later get the opportunity to see the country and eventually much of the hockey world as he became the ultimate "wandering goalie".

I got my first glimpse of Brathwaite under the most trying circumstances imaginable. It was the Memorial Cup Final of 1990, a battle royale between the Oshawa Generals and Kitchener Rangers. Oshawa's starting goalie went down with an injury in the second period, and in came 17-year-old Fred Brathwaite, a mid-season call-up from the Tier II Orillia Terriers. The tiny, unpolished 'tender looked completely overmatched at first, but quickly won me over with his exceptional quickness and athleticism as he rose magnificently to the big occasion. Freddy allowed but one goal in 52 minutes of action, minding the store as the game went to an overtime period, then a second before Oshawa finally won it all. The attention was showered on the giant Eric Lindros, but the little guy in net playing his first tournament game had played a crucial role.

I heard little more of Brathwaite for the rest of his junior career, which he finished up with the London Knights and then as an overager with Detroit Junior Red Wings. Undrafted, he was signed as a free agent by the Oilers in the fall of 1993, and after just 2 games in Cape Breton was given a shot with the big club backing up Bill Ranford. At the beginning of his pro career Freddy wasn't the most polished stopper around to say the least but even then he was a very fine puckhandler, the only decent one Oilers have had since Grant Fuhr IMO.

The 5'7 Brathwaite quickly became a fan favourite here in Edmonton, but the club was execrable. Brathwaite played in 40 games in Oiler silks over the subsequent 2½ seasons, many of them in mop-up duty behind the workhorse Ranford as he recorded just 26 decisions (5-17-4). He shared the backup role for a time with Joaquin Gage, another black netminder, and I'm almost certain the two became the first black tandem to dress for an NHL game. Another NHL first for black hockey players in Edmonton, as the Oilers also featured the first black Hall of Famer, Brathwaite's childhood hero Grant Fuhr, and later iced a squad with no fewer than five black players on it in Gage, Sean Brown, Anson Carter, Mike Grier and Georges Laraque.

Of course "black" comes in different shades. Fuhr was known as "Cocoa" for the mid-range of his skin tone. Brathwaite OTOH is so dark-skinned that when I saw him in person I used to affectionately call him "the headless horseman" because from the high blues one could not discern any facial features within his white mask; he just seemed to be a shape in goalie's clothing. (See the picture up top) 

Needless to say, neither Brathwaite, Gage nor Ranford for that matter was the answer in goal for those woeful mid-90s Oilers. Partway in to the '95-96 season the Oilers were able to sign Curtis Joseph to address this glaring need, and Brathwaite was sent to the minors to make room. He finished up the year with the AHL's Cape Breton Oilers before moving on to the Manitoba Moose of the IHL for a couple years, highlighted by a goal Fred scored on November 9, 1996.

With no NHL jobs in sight in the fall of '98, Brathwaite switched gears and signed on with the Canadian National team. He played 24 games that fall with the touring squad that fall, capped by an MVP performance at the Spengler Cup. This caught the attention of the NHL's Calgary Flames, another struggling team with problems between the pipes. Within weeks the peripatetic puckstopper was ensconced as the #1 tender in Calgary, a spot he held for the next 2½ seasons. A personal highlight occurred in 1999-2000 when Grant Fuhr also joined the Flames, making them the first full-time tandem of black goaltenders. Brathwaite got the lion's share of the load, playing a career-high 61 games, Fuhr 23 in the last year of his storied career. Meanwhile the prospect Jean-Sebastien Giguere got just 7 games before being shipped off to Anaheim for a second-round pick, another showcase example of Calgary's inability to identify and/or develop their talented young players during that troubled period.

With Calgary far from the playoffs, Brathwaite was selected to play for Canada at the World Championships in both 2000 and 2001. He subsequently became the ultimate wandering goalie, moving on to St. Louis Blues for two seasons as a backup before winding down his NHL days (to date) in Columbus in 2003-04.  That Freddy played primarily on struggling teams over his 9 NHL seasons can be seen in a career log that spans 254 regular season games and 1 minute of playoff action.  

During the lockout Fred found work in the Russian Superleague with the notorious Ak-Bars Kazan, whom he backstopped to a league championship in 2005-06. He returned to North America the following season where he won another professional title, the Calder Cup, with the Chicago Wolves. Again there were no bites from the NHL, so the itinerant netminder again returned to Russia, playing for Avangard Omsk. He then moved on to Mannheim Eagles of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (German League) where he was named league MVP in his first season of 2008-09.

Today Brathwaite is still going strong with Mannheim, where I was pleased to catch up with him at the recent Spengler Cup. He looked just as sharp as ever, still quick, athletic and square to the shooter, still an aggressive puckhandler, still very much fun to watch. The personable little man plays a very dynamic style of goal which has won him friends and fans wherever he has gone. Which is a long way indeed; since entering major junior hockey 20 years ago Fred has played on 16 teams across 4 countries and 5 Canadian provinces. About the only place he hasn't played is in the Barbados Hockey League.

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