by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & ritty Spokane Chiefs captain Chris Bruton played his way into the hearts of local hockey fans a few years ago, and he punched his way into the hearts of fans throughout the Western Hockey League a few weeks ago.
Bruton gained a certain measure of video fame on YouTube.com when he knocked out talented but yappy Everett Silvertips star Kyle Beach with one punch in a scrum at the end of the Jan. 16 contest at the Spokane Arena.
Two nights later, when Bruton accompanied the Chiefs to Seattle in street clothes while serving a two-game suspension, he was greeted like a conquering hero. Beach, you must understand, is such an irritant on the ice that even he admits he's annoying.
Signs held aloft at KeyArena carried messages like "Thank You, Chris Bruton" and "Chris Bruton for President." One leather-lunged fan took advantage of a quiet moment prior to the game and bellowed, "Way to go, Chris Bruton!"
"I even had 15 or 16 Seattle fans come up just to shake my hand and say, 'Good job,'" a beaming Bruton reports.
Ah, but there is so much more to Bruton than his ability to punch somebody in the mouth. The Calgary, Alberta, native ranks among the league leaders in plus-minus at plus-34. Simplified, that means the Chiefs have scored 34 more goals than they've allowed when Bruton is on the ice.
Bruton has already far surpassed his previous career highs by scoring 24 goals and 33 assists (57 points) in 59 games. He's recognized as one of the best two-way players and penalty killers in the WHL, and he's also recognized as one of the best leaders.
"I've heard he's the best captain the Chiefs have ever had," team owner Bobby Brett says.
"He puts his heart on the line every night," teammate David Rutherford says.
"No one is prouder to be a Chief," says general manager Tim Speltz.
Bruton, playing his fourth season in Spokane in his final year of junior eligibility, was a low-scoring, defense-minded center until being moved to right wing on Spokane's top line this year. Teamed with playmaking center Mitch Wahl and goal-sniping left winger Drayson Bowman, Bruton's offensive numbers have skyrocketed.
"Brut's done a lot of the crashin' and bangin' and dirty work and gets the puck to those guys in good spots," coach Bill Peters says. "But Chris also has a good scoring touch."
"I've always worked to develop and improve," Bruton says. "I've always had the team-first mentality."
"He's one of those guys who's had to earn everything he's been given," Peters says. "Sorry -- he hasn't been given anything. He's had to earn everything he's ever gotten."
Bruton grew up with wealth -- his father, who played college hockey at McGill University in Montreal, is an oil industry lawyer -- but he plays like his next meal relies on his next shift.
"His nickname," Peters notes, "is 'Hard-Core.'"
"My parents are very grounded people," Bruton says. "They didn't have that kind of lifestyle when they were growing up. They worked for everything they got. My father worked his butt off to get through school."
Bruton, 21, has dreamed of playing pro hockey since he was a tyke skating on outdoor rinks in Canada. He's never been drafted by a National Hockey League team, but he earned an invitation to the St. Louis Blues' training camp last fall, and he hopes to play in the American Hockey League -- the NHL's top pro feeder league -- next season.
"I've played hockey my whole life," Bruton says. "I've lived every moment for it, and I've loved every moment of it.
"I want to live the dream."
The Chiefs, top-ranked in the Western Hockey League for most of the season, return to Spokane Arena on Friday, March 7, at 7 pm against the Tri City Americans. Call 535-PUCK or (800) 325-SEAT.