Ask Maple Leafs’ rookie Adam Brooks about the first “Welcome to the NHL” moment of his young seven-game career, and he’s quick to tell the tale of getting schooled by a fellow Winnipeg native.
“We were playing Chicago [on Jan.18],” Brooks recalled to TSN last week. "There was a six-on-five situation and Jonathan Toews walked me – just walked in for a goal. Your responsibility is to push him to the outside and be harder on him, and just be a lot harder in situations like that than I was. You can never take any part of the game off. So that’s one of the things where you're like, ‘Well, this is the next step, so you need to take to really up your game and stay up here.’”
That was the last NHL action Brooks saw this season. The 23-year-old forward was returned to the American Hockey League’s Marlies just hours after the Leafs’ 6-2 loss, having tallied three assists during his stay.
More importantly, he left with a whole new appreciation for hockey at its highest level.
“If you had asked me a couple years ago if I ever thought I was gonna play in the NHL, I would probably have been a little hesitant to say yes,” Brooks said. “But I felt very good, I felt confident. That whole experience of just getting a chance to play those games and then to feel comfortable through most of them, it was really cool.”
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered hockey operations in mid-March, Brooks could have seen another recall before the season was out.
Despite his prior reservations about being able to make the NHL jump, Toronto has been grooming Brooks to potentially fill a depth spot in its lineup. The Leafs grabbed Brooks in the fourth round, 92nd overall, of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, after he put up 120 points for the WHL’s Regina Pats in 2015-16. Brooks followed that up with another prolific 130-point campaign for the Pats in his final junior season before joining the Marlies.
Brooks showed some promise during the limited minutes he played for the big club this season (averaging 7:51 per game primarily on the fourth line) by generating solid underlying numbers with 51 per cent possession and an expected goals-for percentage of 54 at 5-on-5.
Back in the AHL, Brooks was determined to learn from his mistakes while continuing to improve, and had 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 29 AHL games when the pandemic struck.
Biding time now back home in Winnipeg, Brooks has been reflecting on whether he’ll see the ice again at all this season, and what his future might hold as a pending restricted free agent nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract.
“There was definitely some ups and downs with the way I played [in the NHL] and things that I would have liked to correct,” he said. “But just getting your feet a little bit wet, it allowed me to learn a lot. Even the things that didn't probably go so well for me were still learning experiences that I'm able to correct and get better at, whether the season continues and I'm able to go back to the AHL, or maybe be a Black Ace for the Leafs. And then hopefully [take that] into next season as well.”
While the details of his next contract still have to be worked out, Brooks talks about his coming chapter as being in Toronto. He feels fortunate to have made big strides in the system, and has a good relationship with Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe, who was the Marlies’ bench boss for the first two seasons Brooks played there.
“Whatever was asked of me from Sheldon, I would be ready to do,” Brooks said. “He's a coach where you know exactly where you're at, at all times. You know what he expects from you. I would relish [any chance he gave me] and try to excel at. But at the same time, I’m really not looking at that right now. You still need to get in the best shape that you possibly can for whatever comes towards the end of this season now.”
Brooks has been staying on top of the workouts sent to players from the Leafs’ strength and conditioning staff, incorporating everything from yoga to speed drills in his routine. It took a lot of work for him to build the foundation of skill used to reach the NHL, and Brooks is committed to keeping it as locked in as possible during the break.
“One area I've seen a lot of improvement in myself, and that I still think I can improve upon to stay at that NHL level, is just being a little bit quicker,” he said. “I’ve been improving my skating and just being stronger all around on the puck. The work that you do with this organization, and especially [skating consultant] Barb Underhill, is incredible. Just the steps that she has made with me already, and that I still want to try to get to as a player, is exciting.”
Until that journey is safe to continue, Brooks can be sustained by a few positive memories of the season, ones that remind him of scaling hockey’s highest peak, and the euphoric feeling from the top.
“Just being in the locker room with the Leafs for my first game, knowing how exciting it was, was incredible,” he said. “You grew up your whole life hoping to play in the NHL and to put on one of those jerseys and when you're in the stall sitting around guys like Auston [Matthews], Mitch [Marner], Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Morgan [Rielly], like top-end talent in the NHL, and you see your name on an NHL jersey, it's a pretty exciting experience and one that I'll never forget.”