The team is ranked No. 5 in the country. The coach is a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer. The players include sons of Philadelphia Flyers stars Danny Briere and Kimmo Timonen, and a grandson of Flyers legend Bobby Clarke.
The top goaltender is a Cape Christian Academy eighth-grader from Cape May Court House.
Brandon Graf is 31-0-1 with nine shutouts this season for Team Comcast, a club team that finished the regular season 55-6-3 overall and is ranked No. 5 in the nation by MyHockeyRankings.com for the “99” age group (players born in 1999 or later) heading into the playoffs Friday night.
Graf, who recently turned 14, first skated at a birthday party at Flyers Skate Zone in Atlantic City when he was 4. He quickly fell in love with hockey and is now in his fourth year with Team Comcast, which is based at Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken and plays in the Atlantic Youth Hockey League.
“Brandon’s definitely proven himself to be an elite goalie,” coach Derian Hatcher said in a phone interview earlier this month. “He’s really stepped up large for us in a lot of big games and probably stole us a couple games this year. … Every game when I put him in the net, I know what I’m going to get.”
Hatcher, 40, was the first American player to captain a Stanley Cup winner, with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He finished his career with the Flyers and now is their player development coach.
Hatcher’s son, Kelton, is a defenseman for Team Comcast. The forwards include Briere’s son Carson, Timonen’s son Max, Clarke’s grandson Peter White, and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette’s son John. Former Flyer Kjell Samuelsson’s son Mattias is a defenseman.
The elder Briere is an assistant coach, and the team has gotten instruction from a host of other Flyers, including Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Braydon Coburn.
“You never know who’s going to show up at practice,” Graf’s mother, Cyndi, 44, said in an interview at their Cape May Court House home earlier this month. “One time, (former Flyers goalie) Robert Esche came and I’m, like, rushing to get my camera.”
Graf said he doesn’t even mention any of it to his classmates at Cape Christian, though.
“Most of them don’t (follow) hockey, and I don’t think they’d understand it,” he said.
Graf lives at least a half-hour further away than anyone else on the team. Driving to practice 2-3 days per week is a chore for both him and his parents. Having games every weekend in places such as Toronto, Detroit and North Carolina is even more difficult — the Grafs take an RV to road games — and there are only a few weekends off per year.
“The trips are tiring, but they’re a lot of fun, too — especially when we’re winning,” Graf said.
Graf’s father, Bruce, 44, owns a business called Commercial Kitchen Cleaning, so he has a flexible schedule.
“If I worked a regular 8-4 job for somebody, there’s no way I could take off the amount of time I take off,” Bruce Graf said.
Brandon misses school frequently and has to do homework on the road. But he maintains a 4.0 grade-point average, according to his parents.
Despite it all, Graf has not gotten burned out. If anything, he said he likes it more each year.
“I do ask him every year before tryouts, ‘Are you sure you still want to go through this?’ “ Cyndi Graf said. “ ‘Are you sure you still want to ride in the car for three hours and do your homework in the car?’ “
The 5-foot-9 Graf has a 1.38 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. He said he models his playing style after the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick and the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.
“I’m kind of like a hybrid,” he said. “I’m more of, like, a floppier kind of goalie.”
Graf said his favorite part of playing goalie is frustrating shooters. He said even his teammates get infuriated in practice sometimes.
“I like when a shooter thinks he’s going to score and then I just stone him on a save,” he said with a smile.
As competitive as he is, though, Graf is quiet and reserved. Hatcher said he “just goes about his business” on the ice.
“Over four years, we haven’t said a whole lot to one another,” Hatcher said with a laugh. “You try to have conversations and you get a lot of yeses and nos. But he’s smiling a lot. He’s just quietly having fun.”
Graf doesn’t know where he will attend high school, but he already has his eyes on Princeton University, which has a top NCAA Division I hockey program and a meteorology program — Graf’s passion off the ice.
Hatcher said it’s difficult to project a player at this age. But he said it’s a good sign that Graf has continued to get better, whereas many players level off at that age.
“If he can continue on the path he’s on and keep doing what he’s doing consistently, personally I think there’s no reason he can’t go to (a Division I) school,” Hatcher said.
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