Brandon Crawley had the opportunity in front of him to chase a dream. It was a big dream, and the path to it wouldn’t be easy – nor without risk.
The Glen Rock native had been offered a contract to play junior hockey for the London (Ontario) Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, one of the Canadian junior leagues that serve as the primary feeder system to professional hockey in North America. But the OHL is considered a professional league, so if Crawley opted to play for London and things didn’t go well there, he would be ineligible to play hockey in college. That made going to Canada a riskier play for a 17 year-old high school junior.
But a chance to make it to the National Hockey League is not something that everyone gets. And so, after talking it over with his family, Crawley decided to take that chance.
“I had to choose between going to play college, or trying to go to Canada and then, hopefully, trying to get into an NHL organization,’’ Crawley told Banana Tree News last week. “So me and my family just thought, if I was going to try to make it (to the NHL), I should just go all in and see where the chips fall.’’
The chips fell nicely for Crawley, a 6-1, 205-pound defenseman. Last month, three years after he took the plunge and went to Canada, he was selected in the NHL draft, taken in the fourth round by the New York Rangers.
“Being drafted by the Rangers was just so special,’’ he said. “Growing up in Glen Rock, in the Tri-State area, you just understand the fan base of the Rangers, you understand how idolized they are here. So it’s definitely an absolute honor to hear my name called.’’
He did have to wait a while. Crawley, 20, was eligible to be drafted after his first season with London, but he wasn’t. And he wasn’t drafted after his second season, either. He admitted he was crushed when he first was passed over, but it looks now as though things turned out for the best.
“Not getting drafted was disappointing,’’ Crawley said. “I was ranked for the draft, so I know a lot of people were hopeful that I would get picked. So it was definitely a little bit of a kick in the throat. But it was nothing but a motivator for me, and it really worked out better. It made me work harder and made me want to get to the next level that much more.’’
Gord Clark, the Rangers’ Director of Player Personnel, said he had been watching Crawley the entire time he played in the OHL, and he was impressed. He liked Crawley’s smarts, and his ability to not only play defense in his own end of the rink, but to pass the puck quickly up the ice to start the attack. And he loved the fact that Crawley always played against the opposing team’s best players.
Clark said the Rangers considered drafting Crawley in his second year, but they didn’t think anyone else would draft him, so they gambled that they could wait one more year to get him. This year, Clark said Crawley made the improvements the Rangers wanted to see from him, and the team pulled the trigger and took him with the 123rd pick overall.
“You draft hockey players,’’ Clark said. “And this guy’s developed into a hockey player. You show up three years ago in London from New Jersey and say, ‘I’m going to try out for your team,’ and that team’s been a good team. They go deep in the playoffs. They won the Memorial Cup (the championship of Canadian junior hockey) two years ago. And this guy is a major reason.’’
Crawley began playing hockey at 5 years old with the Glen Rock Panthers team at the Ice House in Hackensack. He started playing, he said, because his older brother, Taylor, played hockey, and he wanted to be like his brother. Brandon eventually moved on to travel hockey with the Avalanche, out of the Ice House, before moving to the New Jersey Rockets when he was a freshman at Bergen Catholic. He also played hockey at Bergen Catholic as a freshman, but didn’t play as a sophomore because he was too busy playing for his club team and taking private hockey training.
After his sophomore year, Crawley left Bergen Catholic to attend South Kent School, a prep school in South Kent, Conn., about an hour-and-a-half north of Glen Rock, and 45 miles west of Hartford. After a year there, he was approached by London, which had scouted him, and asked to try out for their team. He performed well enough in the tryout to earn a spot on the team.
Though the safer play would have been to stay at South Kent and wait for a college scholarship offer, Crawley went up to Canada, where he would finish high school while playing junior hockey. He lived with a host family, went to school in the mornings, and to practice every day at 2 p.m. His family, he said, looked at his time in London as “hockey school.’’
“I was just more focused on hockey and it kind of gave me an opportunity to just work and develop my game, and just focus on hockey the past three years, and that’s what I’ve been doing,’’ he said.
Crawley, who still lives in Glen Rock with his parents, Paul and Christine, participated in the Rangers’ prospects minicamp at the team’s Westchester County practice facility last week. The next step will be going with the rest of the Rangers’ prospects to the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in early September. Clark said if Crawley does well there, he will earn an invite to the Rangers’ training camp, which Clark expects him to do. If he does well there, he could earn a contract with the Rangers, who could then send him back to junior hockey for one more year, or assign him to one of their minor league affiliates.
For now, Crawley insists he isn’t thinking about where he’ll play next season, but focusing instead on training hard over the summer and getting better every day.
Growing up in Glen Rock, Crawley said he was always watching hockey on television. But it wasn’t always the Rangers.
“Um… my dad was a huge Ranger fan, my mom was a big Devil fan,’’ he said when asked if he grew up a Ranger fan. “Honestly, I just loved watching hockey; it didn’t matter what team. Whenever hockey was on, I was watching it. I know we used to kind of bust my dad’s chops a lot, so I’d always end up siding with my mom. He would get all mad. But I think they’re all Ranger fans now.’’