After 13 seasons in the pros, Aces captain Swanson retires

sportsMay 4, 2012 

Brian Swanson controls the puck as Michael Gergen of the Bakersfield Condors tries to snag it in a November, 2011 game at the Sullivan Arena. Swanson, an Eagle River native, said he's retiring from professional hockey after 13 seasons.

BOB HALLINEN / DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE NOVEMBER 2011

Words went unspoken, but signs were plentiful, and touching.

Brian Swanson, dressed in street clothes late Wednesday night, stood in a hallway outside the Alaska Aces dressing room at Sullivan Arena, surrounded by his children. His eyes were moist, a little red, and that signaled something deeper than his hockey club's elimination from the ECHL playoffs.

Immediately after the game, Swanson's mother, Lynn, sat on a folding chair in the hallway that leads to the dressing room, her eyes red. His father, Ron, stood a few feet away, against a wall, looking distant. His oldest daughter, Addie, cried.

This is not an area where hockey parents usually hang, unless their son has been injured or something unusual is afoot. Fortunately, for Brian Swanson and his family, he was fine physically -- just the usual bumps and bruises and soreness of a long regular season and a playoff grind and a 36-year-old body.

This, though, was the end of the line. Not just for this season, but for good.

Swanson had just played his last game after 13 seasons as a pro, his final twirl in a career that took him from youth hockey in Eagle River, to stardom at Chugiak High, to an All-America career at Colorado College, to the NHL, to Germany, and finally, for two seasons, back home, where he signed with his hometown team and helped it win the 2011 Kelly Cup.

Friday, the Aces captain confirmed he is retired, and he looked back on all those miles and all those smiles and counted his blessings.

"I feel pretty lucky," Swanson said. "It's been more than I probably ever thought. Just starting playing hockey as a kid for fun, and it takes me and my family everywhere.

"You realize your career is winding down. The last few summers, I'd think, 'OK, still feeling good.' Over the last summer, I kind of knew this would be my last year -- I was 95 percent sure.

"It's good. I feel like I'm leaving on my own terms. It's tough too. The other night was hard, seeing my kids crying and seeing my folks. It's all we've ever known as a family."

And that explained the tears. Hockey wasn't just Swanson's career, but also his family's. They've been along for the whole ride, supportive and understanding.

"Everyone has to be on board," said Brian's wife, Lynn, who is known as Lynnie in the family to keep the confusion down.

Lynn and Ron drove all over the place to get Brian and his brother, Aaron, to rinks as kids. Ron built a small rink at the family's Eagle River home when the boys were kids. High school sweetheart Lynnie has been there every stride of the way -- she and Brian married the summer after college. She was a Division I college soccer player, and later a marathoner, but she's hockey through and through. Her late father, Harry McDonald, was a rink rat of the highest order -- the rink in Eagle River is named after him -- and her brothers, Reid, who runs the McDonald Center, and Kyle, were Division I hockey players.

Brian and Lynnie's kids -- Addie, 11, daughter Sydney, 9, and son Mac, 6 -- are also rink regulars.

This is hard for all of them too.

"Really tough," Lynnie said. "Neither of us verbalized it the last few days, then (Brian) asked if I was bringing the kids to the game Wednesday.

"All day long Wednesday, I would tear up, just sitting at my desk, thinking of all the places we've been, all the people we've met, all the friends we've made."

Swanson retires as one of just 13 Alaskans to play in the NHL, the world's best league. He worked his way through the American Hockey League and played 70 games for the NHL's Edmonton Oilers and Atlanta Thrashers before six seasons in Europe prefaced his return home.

"It was pretty cool," Swanson said of cracking the NHL. "It was a special time because you were like, 'Man, we made it.' It's a kid's dream. It really is.

"It seems like yesterday Lynn and I were just married and going to (AHL) Hamilton, not knowing what was going on."

Swanson has always been a family guy first, and pure class, which tells you all you need to know about the people who raised him and the people who surround him.

Hockey can be hard on a family -- long road trips for the player, and nearly every Friday and Saturday and plenty of Sundays are game nights. The wives and kids and family sacrifice too.

"It'll be nice to have a weekend with my kids and family," Swanson said.

This feels right to him.

"I can sit around and B.S. myself and say, 'Maybe it's not time,' " Swanson said. "But I know I need to move on."

Now he will have time to coach his kids in hockey, as Lynn coaches them in soccer. There will be more time for camping, for nights at home.

Saying goodbye is never easy, and it may be months before Swanson fully understands what he's left behind.

"I don't think it's going to hit Brian until the fall, and there's training camp, and he's not going anywhere," Lynnie said.

She's probably right. But family will help get him through it. They have to move on too. So, it's not just Brian moving on. The Swansons are moving on.

Late Wednesday night, when Swanson was ready to depart Sullivan Arena for the last time as a player, there was another sign he was done. Young Mac made his way up and down the stick rack outside the Aces' dressing room and hauled away all the cut-down twigs he uses for floor hockey at the arena.

"He had to clean out his stall too," Lynnie said.


This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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