Like many young Minnesota hockey players, Justin Braun would watch the Minnesota State High School Tournament games from the stands at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., dreaming of one day playing in one himself.
The Vadnais Heights native turned his dreams into a reality in 2003 and 2005 during his sophomore and senior years with the White Bear Lake High School hockey team. He knew he wasn’t an all-star player, but he couldn’t help but let the roaring crowds give him a small taste of what the NHL might feel like.
That feeling has become familiar to Braun, who has quietly established himself as a top defenseman for the San Jose Sharks. Like in high school,
We caught up with Braun to learn more about his work ethic, his favorite Minnesota hockey memories and what it was like to play in the Stanley Cup finals last season.
Justin Braun: I just tried to enjoy it and kept working hard. I kept moving on to the next level and didn’t look ahead too far. I went to juniors and had a chance to play in college and took advantage of that. Just hard work and enjoying the journey.
Braun: Just have fun. I have my high school buddies I played hockey with back then and I talk to them every week. We just had a good time, showed up to the rink and had fun. It was just the love of the game. You don’t have to be a superstar. Hopefully someone notices your talent, you can get that scholarship and eventually go pro.
Braun: I had so many. Scott Schafer helped me a lot in Peewees, then you had [Scott] Hambly in Bantams and [Tim] Sager in High School. They all helped pave the way, but I think some of the biggest ones were my college coaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. They helped mold my pro-style game and helped me be not so sporadic. They really helped me dial in a little more and put an emphasis on defense and stick position. They played a big part in helping me get to this level.
Braun: Probably the biggest is obviously the state tournament. I got a chance to play in that twice, my sophomore and senior years in high school. As a kid growing up, you’d go to those games. Your parents gave you a day off of school and you got to head to the X and watch those games Thursday and Friday. I think growing up, you always wanted to play in that and I got the opportunity to do that. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up winning either of those games, but it was still a fun experience.
Braun: Just playing at the X. You’re a teenager and you have dreams to play in the NHL. You don’t know if you’re going to make it there, but you get a chance to play on that ice and feel like a pro for a little bit. It’s usually a pretty big crowd, so you got that feeling— feeling like a big-timer for a little bit.
Braun: I don’t remember much of the games, but I remember the celebration after and all my buddies who were seniors got to jump on the glass at the Coliseum and the fans were going nuts. That was probably some of the most fun I had in my high school hockey. If we had gone a little further, it would have been a little different. Those section tournaments—it’s your last chance to really get to the tournament. We were able to do that after all those years playing together and then go down playing the game we love. That was a fun experience.
Braun: It’s great. That was one of the best games of the year. You’d show up, the place would be jammed and standing room only. You got your whole high school there; they got their whole high school there. You got the band going. It was just hockey at its purest. You’ve got two rival teams going at it and both want that bragging right. Those were the most fun games of the year.
MHJ: Do you have any superstitions?
Braun: Thankfully, nothing too bad. I don’t have to tape my stick a certain way or anything. I do try to leave for a game at the same time and keep that routine the same. If something changes, I don’t think about it too much.
MHJ: Any hidden talents?
Braun: I always tell my wife it’s backgammon because I beat her at that all the time.
MHJ: Favorite hockey road trip?
Braun: I always enjoy going to Nashville. It’s a pretty cool city and they have live bands all day. It’s my favorite spot to go on all of our road trips.
MHJ: Favorite arena?
Braun: The United Center. You get the anthem going and packed house every night. And you get to play the Blackhawks. That’s gotta be my favorite.
MHJ: Any nicknames?
Braun: Brauner or Bronco.
MHJ: Most embarrassing moment?
Braun: [Pavel] Datsyuk walked around me pretty good. It turned out to be one of the top goals of the year. I got a lot of texts about that. Made the goal of the year. That was a little embarrassing. You’ve also got the odd time when you leave your skate guards on and you walk on the ice and fall down.
MHJ: Did you play any other sports as a kid or in school?
Braun: I did play JV soccer for a year, but that didn’t turn out too well. I had never played soccer before, but all my buddies were playing, so I tried out and made the team. I think I also played maybe when I real young, but then baseball got in the way. Turns out I wasn’t good at baseball either.
MHJ: What’s currently in your Netflix queue?
Braun: I like The Grand Tour on Amazon; that’s my go-to right now. I’ve been watching a lot of White Collar, too.
Braun: I wish I knew. We had some good teams going on there, but we weren’t able to do it. There’s got to be a curse. We must have done something to someone else’s mascot back in the day (laughs). Hopefully someday they can beat it.
Braun: That was an experience of a lifetime. The fact that we were the first Sharks team to get there and a few of these guys have been playing forever and they get a chance to play in the cup finals. It was fun. Unfortunately we weren’t able to close it out. It was just a surreal feeling to be two teams left. Hopefully this year we can take that next step and close it out, but it was a good experience for just about everyone.
Braun: We liked to tell stories about hockey. I think he was surprised how some things have changed. It’s just cool to hear the stories about when he played. It was surreal being able to hear a little history of what it used to be like firsthand. With him being a forward and me being a defenseman—he was a little more skilled than me, too—I don’t know if he could help me that much (laughs). It was really cool sitting with him and sharing the old stories about times with the boys and stuff. Not so much about hockey all the time—but experiences with the guys and how much fun he had.
Braun: That’s a good question. They seem to pump them up pretty good. He’s one of the steadiest guys I’ve played with night in and night out. But he’s a fun guy to watch, I learn some stuff from him. There are quite a few Minnesota guys if you look at the Olympics and world tournaments. There are a lot of Minnesota defensemen out there, so we must be doing something right.
Braun: It’s great. You just look at the rinks in the winter and kids skating out there and that’s what I grew up doing—going to the pond and the lake. It’s great to go back there when I get a chance during the season, and just seeing how much fun people have and how much pride they take in their hockey. My dad still follows White Bear Lake and the Gophers. A lot of people have that same enthusiasm about it night in and night out.
Braun: I’ve got a place up in Centerville. Me and the family go there in the summer and spend a few months. We get to enjoy the lake and the mosquitos. I still enjoy going back there and seeing all my high school buddies and family and friends.
Braun: Back in college, I used to get back to the Christmas Tournament, but lately I haven’t had as much time to follow too much. My dad calls me and gives me updates, tells me what’s going on there. He’s usually the one for keeping me in the loop.
Braun: Every once in a while, but I haven’t come up with a very solid plan yet. Hopefully within the next few years I’ll come up with one. It’s tough to figure out where you’re going to be. My wife’s from Georgia so it’s a little complicated where we’re doing to be tied down. I don’t know if she’s feeling the winters too much, so we might have a to find a neutral spot.
Braun: Just to enjoy it every day. The privilege of playing NHL, and being able to come to work and play a game is truly a blessing that just a few of us get to have. You’ve just got to enjoy it—that’s the biggest thing. Someday it’ll be over.