Former Maverick Find Passion, Success In Music
Brownlee Gave Up Hockey For Guitar
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
In 2008, Chad Brownlee told his coach he wanted to quit hockey and pursue his Ph.D. in psychology.
"I was always fascinated with the human mind,” Brownlee said. “I'm a very deep thinker and I always question things.”
But Brownlee had other plans.
"I didn't think he would've taken me seriously if I said I wanted to go be a rock star,” Brownlee said. “So I told him that, but I knew in my heart that music was all I wanted to do."
Now Brownlee is a rising Canadian country star. But back then he was playing his first season of professional hockey for the Idaho Steelheads, continuing a career marred by shoulder injuries — which also required surgery one summer.
His love for hockey was also fading.
When another injury occurred, the Canucks draft pick channeled his time into performing with the band that played upstairs. When he noticed the audience enjoying some of his performances, Brownlee knew there was a chance for a musical career.
“Seeing the reaction of people, I think there’s definitely a bit of a light bulb that went off. It's like, you know what, I better pursue this while I'm still young [because] I know I'd regret it if I didn't,” Brownlee said.
The Kelowna, B.C., native ended his professional career that season with 35 games and three points.
“As a player [he was] a very talented kid. It’s too bad he got banged up,” former Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting said. “He’s one of those kids [for whom] I think his career was cut short because of those injuries. I think he would’ve played longer and further had he not been injured. But [he was a] great teammate, great kid and a very talented player and could skate. [He] could do all the things you needed to be able to do to be a successful player.”
The hardest part for Brownlee was telling his parents, Laura and Al.
“His dad was a bit sad, but then again you like to support your child for what they want to do. That was always our mindset as parents, to support what he was doing,” Laura said.
Eight years after quitting, Brownlee has two singles — “I Hate You For It” and “Hearts On Fire” — that have been in the Top 10 in Canada’s charts. The songs’ album, Hearts on Fire, was nominated for the Canadian Country Music Association’s (CCMA) Album of the Year and Recording Package of the Year.
“The biggest challenge I think creatively is bringing something fresh but still maintaining who you are as an artist that your fans fell in love with in the beginning,” Brownlee said. “It's very challenging kind of walking that line of the evolution of the evolution of an artist and a songwriter, but at the same time I absolutely love it because it challenges you to keep pushing forward and not to be happy with where you're at."
Picking Up Piano
Six-year-old Chad Brownlee chose sticks and skates at the behest of his father Al, an avid hockey fan. As a mellow child who avoided fighting and played quietly, Chad’s affinity for hockey shocked his parents.
“As a toddler, he would sit and play,” Laura said. “Usually the little guys are like running all over the house and bouncing all up over the furniture, [but] he was pretty laid back even as a small child.
“So when my husband said he’s playing hockey I went okay, but have you seen your son?”
His parents introduced Chad to piano around the same time, a suggestion from his first-grade teacher. He picked up the instrument by ear. Piano led to school productions, Chad singing on stage by himself, and, by middle school, a desire for drums.
They said no.
“I think he's mad at us for that still,” Laura said.
Left without drums and his second choice, guitar, Chad settled on his third — tenor saxophone.
"Apparently the next coolest thing to a guitar and drums is the tenor saxophone, so away I went into jazz band playing tenor sax,” Chad.
Growing up, hockey was No. 1 in Chad’s life. The sport took him 40 minutes up the Okanagan Highway to Vernon, B.C., where he spent a season playing for the Vipers of the BCHL. His parents, concerned he had too much free time in junior hockey, finally bought Chad a guitar.
“I was just very interested in picking up the guitar,” Chad said. “I felt it was a lot cooler at parties to play a cover song on guitar rather than tenor sax."
So while Brownlee was scoring 24 points in a 58-game season with Vernon, he was teaching himself guitar — starting with the basic GCD chords until he could play entire songs. He brought his guitar with him across the border to Minnesota State, where he continued to play in between scoring 11 points in 134 games and classes. Brownlee wrote his first song, “Something Out Of Nothing,” in his dorm room at Minnesota State.
“[He’s a] role model in terms of he just did things the right way,” Jutting said. “I wouldn’t call him overly vocal as a leader, but was vocal when he needed to be, but an example setter as a leader. … School, hockey, everything that he did there was the kind of person that is going to and you know was going to be successful.”
He performed at dive bars and clubs, sharing his musical talents with an enclave of friends and his parents.
"It was pretty chill because it was usually just friends and family that were at them,” Laura said. “In Vancouver to the open mics, it was a small area so it would just the people that maybe came to play and a few friends that came to watch that I watched in Vancouver. But it was always fun listening to him play and sing.”
Brownlee served as a captain his senior year and graduated with a dozen written songs. But the most important song he wrote was for Anthony Ford, a young boy — and big Minnesota State fan — who had leukemia.
“For the year and half that he battle leukemia he was kind of like a little brother to us and his parents would invite us over for dinner and we'd play some ball hockey with him down in the basement,” Brownlee said. “He was just an amazing, amazing kid, never complained about his illness and was super inspiring.”
When Ford died, Brownlee recorded a song called “The Hero I See.” He performed the song at Ford’s funeral and recorded a copy of the song. All profits from the record went to the Anthony Ford Foundation, an organization founded by Ford before he died.
“That was probably the heaviest, most invested performance I've ever had to do in my entire life,” Chad said.
It was the first song Brownlee recorded, set up by Jutting.
The Canadian Country Star
Brownlee’s songwriting process starts in Nashville, or sometimes in a cabin tucked away in British Columbia. When his group of co-writers gather, they can spin a song from scratch in several hours. Or they can suffer from brainstorming blocks, a challenge Brownlee remedies by trips to lunch, walks, and even going to the bathroom.
“Sometimes there's a lot of answers in the bathroom. It’s kind of funny,” Brownlee said. “I'll be spinning my wheels and I'll get up and go to the bathroom and all of a sudden all of these answers hit me when I'm going to the bathroom but I can't write them down. So you just repeat them over and over in your head and then when you get back to the room you just spit ‘em out and hopefully somebody captures it.”
Sometimes he forgets.
“I don't know how people did it without recording devices, like how people remembered stuff. Maybe they were a lot smarter than us back then,” Brownlee said.
But the British Columbia native has produced several albums, including Love Me Or Leave Me, The Fighters and Hearts on Fire. He won the British Columbia Country Music Association’s Socan Award for Songwriter of the Year, as well as for Video and Songwriter of the Year for “When The Lights Go Down.” Brownlee, who was nominated for the CCMA Male Artist of the Year in 2013, won the CCMA’s Rising Star Award in 2011.
“That was kind of the moment where I felt I was finally accepted into the country world or I wasn't just trying to peek my head over the face and say, 'Hey guys, here I am, I'm the new guy,'” Brownlee said.
It was after his award that Brownlee went on tour with Dierks Bentley, opening for the singer in 2012. Their last stop on the road was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the 100-year-old Burton Cummings theater. The venue, built in 1906-07, has housed ballets, operas, movies and is classified as a National Historic Site of Canada. On that night of the tour, Brownlee was finishing his last song of his set when his performance was interrupted.
“All of a sudden out of nowhere all these guys in hockey jerseys and hockey sticks and two hockey nets rush the stage. They had a blowup doll with my Canucks jersey and my name on the back that Dierks himself was holding up in the air,” Brownlee said. “So him and his whole band came out in the middle of the song, set up a net on each side and started playing road hockey so I didn't know whether to stop singing and join them or finish the song, and then before the song was done they cleared the stage and we all had a pretty good laugh.”
Brownlee has toured with Deri Ruttan, Jason Blaine, Dallas Smith and embarked on his own headlining tours, but the early venture with Bentley is Laura's favorite. For Laura, who watched Chad play hockey for almost 20 years, the performances are a reprieve from the dangerous games.
“Over the years yes I have been in the rink when he's been hit, a few concussions and no real broken bones but knocked out teeth,” Laura said. “You don't want to see that, so and whenever we watched him either play in the band with his tenor sax or any kind of music to me that was a lot less stressful watching than hockey.”
But the lessons from those 20 years of playing hockey have helped Brownlee pursue his passion for music.
“My hockey days in general have taught me how many hours you need to put into something and how much commitment you need to be successful and that roadblocks are not the end. Choosing to stop at that point to me is failure, but continuing past whatever road block that is just brings you closer to your goal and to what you would call success,” Brownlee said.”
“It gives you thick skin as well and you definitely need a thick skin in the music industry because it's tough to navigate through sometimes. I definitely wouldn't be the artist or performer or song writer I am today without all my years of hockey.”
Brownlee, who draws inspiration for his music from his life, hasn’t written a song about college hockey — yet.
"Yeah you never know. I can neither confirm nor deny that will ever happen, but I think it would be a lot of fun to write one, that's for sure,” Brownlee said.