Detroit Lakes native Jake Brenk knows firsthand the phrase of chasing one's dream, and he knows it in a literal sense. Brenk's task of chasing his professional hockey dream has taken him on a journey around the world, and eventually landed him on...
Detroit Lakes native Jake Brenk knows firsthand the phrase of chasing one's dream, and he knows it in a literal sense.
Brenk's task of chasing his professional hockey dream has taken him on a journey around the world, and eventually landed him on a team which won the Dutch National Championship.
His journey to the Dutchland was topsy-turvy, and one which took many detours after he played his final game for the Minnesota State University Mankato Mavericks in the 2005 WCHA Tournament.
But in the end, Brenk's path to Holland eventually became worth it all -- and landed him in his second championship of his hockey career.
Pros prove a tough nut to crack
Brenk finished his WCHA days at Mankato in 2005 and entered the Edmonton Oilers' rookie camp, in which he was a fifth-round draft choice of the Canadian team.
His tryout started a little shaky on those September days, but he recovered by having two good days of skating to end the camp.
But it was a little too much, too late.
The Oilers cut Brenk free, a move which surprised the former Maverick.
"I was frustrated because I didn't know where I stood with them," Brenk said of the Oiler camp. "I didn't start out well, but I thought I really played pretty well the last two days."
The first leg of his journey ended, and the next one began, this time playing for the Greenville, S.C. Growl. But that ended as fast as it started, after Brenk was traded to the AHL's Pensacola, Fla., team three days later.
"I packed my car and headed to Pensacola," Brenk said. "The coach at Greenville said I would probably get a better chance there to play."
But, as was the course so far in Brenk's pro career, some information was misleading.
For two weeks, Brenk didn't see much ice time with Pensacola, playing some on the third line. Since the team is affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, many of the players who had a vested interest to the NHL team gained the majority of the playing time, leaving free agents like Brenk out in the cold.
"Since I didn't have a contract with anybody, I was sort of left out there to burn," Brenk commented. "I later went to the (Pensacola) coach and asked him to trade me or release me, I felt like I can't just be sitting on the bench all the time."
That talk spurred the coach to grant Brenk's wish, and he released the free agent.
For the next few days, Brenk hit the phone lines, calling teams to see if he could get a shot with them. But since most of the seasons were already underway, most of the pro squads' rosters were filled.
He finally struck a deal with the Airodack, N.Y. AHL team, and so once again, Brenk hit the road.
Soon Brenk realized words in the business of professional hockey were hollow as once again, the coach from the New York team said he'd give him a chance -- but once again, promises went unfulfilled.
After three games with limited playing time, Brenk got his chance in the fourth contest, where he finished with a highlight of gaining an assist.
It wasn't enough.
Brenk was told he can stick around on the team, but there would be no promise on playing time.
"I said 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" Brenk added. "I was starting to get frustrated big time. All I really wanted was a shot to prove myself. But, like so many things, it came down to money and those teams were playing the guys (who had contracts) with NHL teams."
Brenk started to learn another aspect of pro hockey -- it's who you know, not what you know.
So he used that knowledge to start working for him.
"I was e-mailing with a former (Mankato) teammate Kyle Nixon, and he was playing with this team in Holland," Brenk explained. "He went to bat for me there, and in a couple of days I was on a plane to Holland."
Becoming a Dutch defender
The journey continued across the big pond, where he would play forward for the Dutch team in Nijmegan, also famous for being the birthplace of Eddie Van Halen.
The team was already 15 games into its season. With jet lag still affecting him a little, Brenk's start to his Holland career was less than auspicious.
"I didn't have a goal in the first four or five games, and right when the coaches started to second guess me, I went on a tear," Brenk said.
That tear included 20 goals in the next 20 games, only one behind T.J. Caig's (a former University of Minnesota-Duluth forward) 21 during that span.
The team also added a new goalie from Sweden and with the front line of Brenk and Caig scoring 41 goals, the Nijemegan squad started to put together some wins.
The Holland League, which included six teams, fit Brenk's game to a "T."
"The refs would call a very tight game," he added. "If there was a stick on a guy, you'd be going to the penalty box. That was good for me because I'm an offensive player."
The team was made up of different nationalities, including American, Canadian, Swedish and Dutch. But English was the language spoken, so no breakdowns in communication were to be had.
Brenk also had to go through a head coaching change, when the first coach was fired.
"The first head coach was fired about two or three weeks after I got there and the next one was Canadian, but he was the assistant, so it was nice we had a coach not entirely new," said Brenk. "He basically let the ship steer itself."
Nijmegan would sneak into the playoffs as the fourth and final seed. There wasn't much pressure on them to win, with some low expectations heading into the playoffs.
The top-seeded Amsterdam team downed Nijmegan in overtime in game one of the five-game series. That would be the wake-up call Brenk and his teammates needed.
"After that overtime loss, we felt like we took Amsterdam's best punch and it took overtime to beat us," Brenk said.
Nijmegan would sweep the rest of the series to propel them into the championship game, and lots of it had to do with Brenk's play, which netted the forward four goals and eight assists.
In the title tilt, Nijmegan would face Heerenveen, the No. 2 seed in the league.
"Heerenveen just smoked us a few weeks earlier, but we went out and won the first game 5-1 in their rink," Brenk said. "The funny thing was, the away team won every game."
Meaning, the last seeded Nijmegan claimed the championship, which was Brenk's second championship, the first being a Class 1A Minnesota state championship with Breck in 2000 -- where Brenk was named to the All-Tournament team.
"The Dutch championship was right up there with the high school one, just because we were not expected to win anything," Brenk said. "But we went out and did our thing."
Getting the skate in the door
Brenk's Holland season hopefully has sent some flares up for him in the professional hockey world -- especially in Europe.
The DL skater hopes to land a gig in either the German, Finnish or Swedish league, all of which are a couple steps above the Dutch league.
Brenk's timing of playing in Holland was perfect, as well.
"That is exactly what I needed at the time," Brenk stated. "I got an opportunity to play for five or six months, and proved what I could do."
Now, back home in DL, Brenk will play the waiting game again, hoping to hear from a team soon.
"I'm hoping to get some calls," Brenk added. "A lot of the European leagues are finishing up now. I think I could have a good career over there."
As for playing on a U.S. pro team someday... that question can only be answered with time.
"I have no idea," Brenk said of his chances of getting back on U.S. ice. "One of the things you need to catch a break. Playing pro hockey is an unforgiving thing. If you can't handle the uncertainty, it probably isn't for you.
"But I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm enjoying this experience a lot. You just need to keep chasing your dream."
Even if it brings you half way across the world.