by Howie Stalwick

Brandin Cote, the undersized overachiever who captains the Spokane Chiefs, is widely recognized as one of the most tenacious players in the Western Hockey League.

In fact, the only thing more difficult than playing against Cote is trying to find someone with anything negative to say about the man.

"He's the type of guy you'd love for your son to grow up to be like, or for your daughter to marry," Chiefs General Manager Tim Speltz says. "He's a class act."

"He's known around the league for being a hard worker... you can see he's a good leader," says Seattle Thunderbirds captain Dustin Johner. "He shows it by how he carries himself, and how he communicates with the other guys on the ice, and even with the officials."

"Everyone definitely looks to him to set the tone for our team," says Spokane Coach Perry Ganchar, "and that's what he relishes and responds to. But the big thing is, he's just a good, solid person. I'm proud to have been able to work with him."

Ganchar, mind you, is a hockey lifer whose list of credentials includes time in the National Hockey League as a teammate of the legendary Mario Lemieux. Ganchar is not easily impressed, yet he can talk about the virtues of Cote (pronounced KO-tay) for as long as a reporter has ink in his pen.

"The first and foremost thing that strikes you is that he's very realistic about what it takes to be successful -- not only in hockey, but in life," Ganchar continues. "He's a very driven kind of person. He'll be good at whatever he decides to do. He's definitely been a pleasure to coach."

Interestingly, the subject of all these glowing compliments has never led the Chiefs in scoring. Never been a first-team all-star in the Chiefs' division. Never led the Chiefs to anything more substantial than a lone division title. Never been drafted by an NHL team.

Ah, but that is part of the appeal of Cote. No one has ever claimed Cote is blessed with remarkable talent, but no one has ever questioned that Cote is blessed with remarkable heart.

"You need character guys, and that's what he is," Seattle coach Dean Chynoweth says. "I know from talking to Tim at different times, there's not too many untouchables [players who would never be traded] in this league, but he's one of them.

"He means a lot to the community and the organization, especially when you've been there that long. It's tough to play five years in this league and not get stale, but he's done it."

Technically, Cote has actually played in the WHL for six years -- all with Spokane -- if you count a brief stint as a 15-year-old in 1996-97 [players must be 16 to stick in the WHL full-time]. No one in the 17-year history of the Chiefs has topped Cote's 352 games played. Only five players in the 36-year history of the WHL have played more games.

Of course, ranking among the all-time leaders in games played in a junior hockey league is some what akin to Crash Davis breaking the minor league home run record in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham. A rather dubious honor, one would have to say, in that no athlete wants to stay in the minors one game longer than necessary.

Alas, Cote has played in the WHL with and against perhaps a dozen players now plying their trade in the NHL. In the big time. Playing in the big cities. Making the big bucks.

Cote, meanwhile, keeps playing in the WHL, making all-night bus rides, boarding with strangers each winter, trying to survive on a monthly living stipend so meager that only U.S. colleges do not classify major junior players as amateurs.

Any regrets, Brandin?

"No," he says firmly. "I want to play hockey. It's what I've done all my life. That's what I want to do.

"If, by some chance, an NHL team doesn't sign me, I'm willing to play in the minor leagues for a while. There's also the option of going to Europe to play. There's a lot of good hockey in Europe where you get paid really well -- places like Switzerland, Germany, France."

Cote turns 21 this year, so this marks his final season of junior eligibility. The Detroit Red Wings brought the speedy center to training camp two years ago, but he's never been drafted or signed by an NHL organization because he's lacking in size (5-foot-10 and 185 pounds on a good day) and offense (career highs of 80 points last season and 28 goals this season).

On the other hand, WHL players, coaches and general managers have named Cote the best defensive forward and faceoff man in the Western Conference for two straight years. He hopes to win the overall WHL award for faceoff work for a third straight season.

"I just don't feel I've gotten as much credit from the professional world as I should have," Cote says. "I know a lot of players I've seen and played with and against, and I know if they can be there, I can be there. Easily."

Few things have come easily for Cote since he followed his NHL dream from the Canadian prairies to Spokane. He grew up in the small Saskatchewan cities of Swift Current and Yorkton.

"We spent hours and hours on our backyard rinks, going over faceoffs," recalls Denis Cote, Brandin's father.

Brandin came by his toughness and character naturally. Denis, now a high school vice principal in Red Deer, Alberta, was a feared fighter in the WHL in the mid-1970s. Later, he worked as an oil rigger, farmer and bouncer before heading to Regina, Sask., for college. Deb Cote was left to raise Brandin and sister Tricia on her own much of the time when the children were young.

"It was hard," Deb admits.

Perhaps, but nothing a Cote couldn't handle. Maybe it's in the genes.

"Brandin is a reflection of his parents," Speltz says. "Denis and Deb are great people. It's said often that apples don't fall far from the tree. That's exactly what happened."

What happens next in Cote's hockey career is anybody's guess. Gancher and Chynoweth, who both played in the NHL, WHL and minor pro leagues, acknowledge that Cote faces steep odds trying to make it to the NHL.

Cote, of course, is utterly convinced he will beat the odds. And, following a long and successful pro playing career, Cote plans to go into coaching and perhaps become a general manager down the road.

"I'm still very optimistic," Cote says, "that things will work out for me."

On and off the ice, you've got to like the odds.

Unity in the Community @ Riverfront Park

Sat., Aug. 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
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