Attention, college hockey coaches: if you want to make Brian Swanson, Colorado College’s senior captain and bona fide Hobey Baker candidate uncomfortable, just ask him to talk about himself.
If modesty were the sole criterion for hockey’s Heisman, the senior from Eagle River, Alaska, would have to be the odds-on favorite. In an age where the “I’m the Man” swagger and bravado of athletes has become prevalent in the world of sports, Swanson dodges praise and accolades nearly as well as he eludes defenders, preferring instead to shine the spotlight on teammates, coaches, prof essors, you name it — anybody but himself.
If you want to learn about Brian Swanson, the last person to ask is Brian Swanson.
Ask him about how it feels to be the one of the leading scorers in Division I college hockey, and he’ll tell you about his linemate, Darren Clark.
“He’s made my career. Without Darren, I wouldn’t have half the points that I do. We’ve played together for four years. I don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves, and that’s disappointing.”
Ask him to talk about his chances for the ultimate individual honor, the Hobey Baker Award, and he’ll tell you about his team’s accomplishments.
“To even be considered for an individual award like this, you have to be on a successful team. All four years I’ve been here at CC, I have had great players around me.”
Ask him to talk about whom taught him to be the prolific scorer that he is, and he’ll tell you about who taught him how to live his life.
“I was really fortunate growing up with the coaches I had. They knew hockey, but more importantly they knew how to teach young guys how to act off the ice and how to treat people with respect. It was the bigger life lessons that I got from them, and for t hat I am grateful.”
There are just four criteria the Hobey Baker selection committee must take into account when making their pick for the award:
1. Candidate must exhibit strength of character on and off the ice.
2. Candidate must contribute to the integrity of the team and display outstanding skills in all phases of the game.
3. Consideration should be given to academic achievement and sportsmanship.
4. Candidate must comply with all NCAA rules.
This set of criteria is strikingly similar to Brian Swanson’s personality: simple, understated, yet effective.
In light of his personality, it came as no surprise to Tiger coach Don Lucia that Brian chose to come to Colorado College on the first day of his recruiting visit. With an enrollment of just 1,950 students, Colorado College, a liberal-arts school with jus t two Division I teams, plays the role of David in a world of college hockey Goliaths.
“He doesn’t want all the attention and spotlight to be on him, and I think that’s why he came to CC, rather than go to one of the big hockey schools like Michigan or Maine where he was heavily recruited.”
With Swanson’s unyielding reluctance to speak about his storied career, thankfully his list of accomplishments speak for themselves: two-time league scoring co-champion…three-time All-league selection…WCHA Rookie of the Year…two-time team MVP…1998 Titan West All-American…1997 Hobey Baker Award finalist…211 career points and counting. The list goes on and on.
Despite his stacked resume of on-ice accomplishments, it is the off-ice persona of this soft-spoken superstar that those around him like to mention.
“He’s the most humble and unassuming athlete I have ever coached. He’s the guy most likely to be picking up pucks after practice, not the freshmen,” remarked Lucia. “Over Christmas, when our equipment manager, Mike Schepp, was in Utah visiting his wife, i t was Brian who volunteered to do the team laundry. Not because it is something he wanted others to hear about, but because that’s the kind of person he is. If something needs to be done, Brian does it, and that mentality carries over onto the ice.
“When we get up by a couple of goals in a game, Brian becomes the best defensive player on the ice, rather than trying to put up big numbers on the scoresheet.”
CC’s other Swanson, star defenseman Scott, has been a teammate of Brian’s for the past six years, both with Colorado College and the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. Scott picked out his favorite qualities about his longtime teammate.
“What I like most about Brian is his genuine sincerity and modesty. He’s not the most vocal, but he leads by example.”
As the leader of CC’s most-hated rival, University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky would not be the most likely candidate to speak the praises of Swanson, but Gwozdecky begrudgingly admitted that he will be happy to see a Brian Swanson-less Tigers team n ext year.
“He is their marquee player. When Colorado College is successful, it is usually because of what Brian Swanson is doing.”
Beyond his weekend achievements, his involvement in the Colorado Springs community is exemplary, so much that he has recently been nominated for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given each of the last three years to “college hockey’s finest citizen.”
Swanson probably would not consider himself a humanitarian. As his mother Lynn says, “He just does what needs to be done.
“Over vacation, when the rest of us were still asleep, Brian was up, shoveling off the roof.
“All that’s happening to him is great, but I know all this attention he’s been getting is eating him up inside because that’s just not his cup of tea. We are pretty darned protective of him, because we know what a private person he is. He knows there is m ore to life than hockey. His father and I are just so proud that he could get his degree in four years.”
The truth about Brian Swanson? Ask Gary Dennison.
Dennison, the Swansons’ next-door neighbor in Eagle River for the past 20 years, knows all about Brian Swanson. A fiercely proud, retired military man, Dennison has forged a strong bond with Brian over the years.
“They’re always teasing each other about something”, says Lynn. “Brian spends a lot of time over there in the summer.”
“I have always been very impressed by Brian. He is a real asset to our neighborhood,” Dennison, 61, remarked. “It would take a long time to list all the things he has done for me over the years.”
Swanson probably would have admitted as much, that they are close friends. What he might not mention is that Gary Dennison lost a leg to diabetes five years ago.
Their friendship was spawned of Brian picking up a paintbrush to fix up the house. Or pushing the lawnmower around the yard. Or cranking up the snowblower. Pride prevents Dennison from asking Brian to do these things. Brian just does them…because they n eed to be done.
“Since I have become disabled, Brian has been very helpful to me, doing chores around the house and whatnot. Not that he didn’t do all that stuff before anyhow,” Dennison smiled.
The same applies to the single mother of three across the street, as it does to nearly everyone in this close-knit neighborhood.
When asked about her son’s propensity for good deeds, Lynn deflected the praise, much as Brian would.
“That’s not so much Brian as it is a function of the way the neighborhood is. We are all very close around here, and it is assumed that we help each other out.”
Currently fourth on the Colorado College all-time points list, Swanson is on pace this season to move past Doug Palazzari into the second spot before his collegiate career’s end. Beyond that, Swanson’s future may include skating alongside the Great One, W ayne Gretzky: the New York Rangers own Swanson’s NHL draft rights, having acquired them in a trade with the San Jose Sharks in 1996.
But for now, Swanson is not concerned with where he might land after his college days are done.
“I have spoken with [the Rangers’] college scout, but that is something I’ll have to deal with when the time comes. I definitely plan on continuing with hockey. If you can get paid to play the sport that you love, that is fantastic.”
With fellow collegians Jason Blake, Brian Gionta and Jason Krog, among others, enjoying banner years, Swanson has tough competition for the Hobey Baker award, and if anything can be guaranteed, it is only the difficulty the 18-member selection committee w ill undoubtedly face in picking one winner out of this array of deserving candidates.
It is, after all, the highest individual honor one can achieve in college hockey, a reality not lost on last year’s winner, Chris Drury. The former Boston University star and current Colorado Avalanche rookie reflected on his win.
“I was absolutely thrilled to have won it, and each year, when another guy takes the trophy home, it will make me even more proud of the accomplishment.”
When asked about the legend of Hobey Baker and how it felt to be mentioned in the same company as the great Princeton star, fittingly Swanson spoke not of Hobey Baker the hockey player, but rather Hobey Baker the person.
“I know a little bit about him — he played at Princeton, I know he was quite the gentleman on and off the ice, but other than that I couldn’t tell you much.”