San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun played on the White Bear Lake varsity for three seasons, appearing in two state tournaments.
Guided by influences from Minnesota to Massachusetts, San Jose Shark Justin Braun evolved from a lanky 16-year-old with hand-me-down equipment to lockdown NHL defender.
Braun’s playing days began in Vadnais Heights, Minn., where his father Paul, a school teacher partial to basketball, and mother Carol couldn’t always afford top-end gear.
“We used a lot of hand-me-downs,” Paul Braun said. “He had a green helmet at White Bear (Lake High School) – everyone else had black helmets. We got it from my cousin, Susan Nelson, who was the organist for the Twins and the North Stars. We got most of the equipment from her and, if we could afford it, we would go the North Star games and sit with her in the organ booth.”
Braun, now 6-feet-2-inches and 205-pounds, joined the White Bear Lake varsity team as a skinny sophomore who loved spending time in the locker room.
“He was always the last one to leave the locker room – I think they even gave him a key,” Paul Braun said. “He would just sit in the locker room and hang out, I think he liked the smell.”
Coach Tim Sager said Braun was an extremely hardworking, fun-loving kid who always showed up to practice with a smile on his face.
“It took him a while to fill out,” Sager said. “But he just kept getting better and better because he worked so hard at it.”
Sager recalls a state tournament game against Moorhead when Braun hit an opponent as hard as he could and bounced off of him.
“Justin was like a mosquito or something,” Sager said. “The other guy just skated right through it, and Justin came back to the bench and told us ‘Wow, I gotta work on that.’”
White Bear Lake went to the state tournament two out of three seasons (in 2003 and 2005) Braun was on the ice. The team posted a 25-3-3 record during his senior season in 2004-05 but was uprooted by state champions Duluth East in the first round of the tournament.
“It’s what you always dream about, the big stage,” Justin Braun said. “Unfortunately we never got past the first round. My sophomore year was more about learning, but my senior year I had my buddies I’d played with for a long time. And with my family behind me, it was really fun.”
Braun, who was drafted 201st overall by San Jose in the 2007, didn’t receive the college offers he was looking for and played one partial season and one full season with the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League. Near the end of his second season, University of Massachusetts-Amherst coach Don “Toot” Cahoon called Paul Braun and said Justin was their number one defensive recruit.
“They brought me out there and offered me a scholarship, and I didn’t want to go back to juniors for another year,” Justin said. “I got to play in every game that I was there and had good coaches in Len Quesnelle and Don Cahoon. They helped me really realize what I had to do to be a pro.”
In 150 games at UMass, Braun posted 88 points (23 goals, 65 assists), made the 2006-07 All-Hockey East Rookie Team, 2008-09 All-Hockey East Second Team and 2009-2010 All-Hockey East First Team. He also developed a friendship with former UMass teammate and current Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.
“Justin told me they would stay after practice and Quicky would get in the net and say ‘Try to score on me,’ ” Paul Braun said. “Justin was never much of a scorer, and I’ll bet he didn’t get much by Jonathan, but those two are still friends today.”
After four years in Amherst, Braun played 37 games in the American Hockey League with the Worcester Sharks, earned a spot in the big leagues and moved across the country to sunny San Jose.
“I still like the Midwest, I was born and raised there, but I got a soft spot for California now,” he said. “I don’t miss shoveling, and there’s so much to do here for fun. The weather is easy on the body – it’s definitely a change from the Midwest and East coast.”
Now in his fifth NHL season, Braun has scored 60 points (nine goals, 51 assists) with a plus 17 plus/minus. He played in all 82 games for the Sharks last season and is just one of eight players on the team to have played in all 41 games this season – a testament to a toughness and hockey sense.
Geographically, it’s a long look back to his pre-NHL days, but Braun hasn’t forgot those that helped him make it to the show.
“My parents, putting in all the hours, driving to practice, putting up the money, turning hockey trips into vacations – there’s a lot to say for that,” he said. “So many people along the way help you and see potential that it’s tough to narrow it down to one or two people. My first coach in Mites, Tom Fuith, told me to become a defensemen, and that’s what I did. Who knows where I’d be without that early influence.”
Paul Braun, the ever-proud father, has only one piece of advice left for his son: “Don’t forget to smell the popcorn.”