SPRINGFIELD — As an eighth-grader, Ryan Brawley watched Springfield hockey from the bleachers. It was March and the Cougars, in what has become an annual event, were playing in the Flyers Cup Class A final. Brawley was enamored with everything he saw.
"It seemed like the entire school was there," he said. "It was cool and exciting. I couldn't believe that I was going to be there in a year."
His brother, Sean, was a senior on that Springfield squad. Older brother Kevin had preceded them both. Eric, the third brother, was on the rise in the Cougars system. All three played in multiple Flyers Cups, part of the growing tradition of Springfield hockey.
The career of Ryan, the youngest brother, culminated the Brawley's reign, a hockey family with a hockey name.
"It was a huge part of my family when I was younger," Ryan Brawley said. "My dad had me on the ice when I was 2 or 3 years old. My three older brothers played for Springfield. I'm the last one to come through."
He is the last ... and perhaps the most accomplished. In four years for the Cougars, Ryan Brawley appeared in four Flyers Cup finals, winning one. He was part of an undefeated Central League team as a junior. He led Springfield in points as a sophomore and in goals as a junior and senior.
Brawley is a three-time All-Delco performer and, after reaching career highs in all three major offensive categories, the 2014 Daily Times Player of the Year.
But Brawley is not one to hold such accolades over people's heads, namely his brothers'.
"I definitely wouldn't be where I am without them," he said. "I owe them credit rather than having bragging rights."
Brawley is joined on the All-Delco first team by teammates Steve Cavaliere and Kyle Riddle, Garnet Valley forwards Nico Gricco and Joseph Dangelantonio, and the Haverford pair of defenseman Steve McCrossin and goaltender Joey Harant. Riddle is a repeat All-Delco. Harant and Cavaliere are the only juniors on a senior-heavy team.
The All-Delco teams are picked by the Daily Times staff in consultation with area coaches.
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Describing Ryan Brawley's offensive game isn't easy. He's a unique figure on the ice — big, strong, fast, often aggressive but always under control. He played the role of a nuanced power forward, one who used his size to dominate on the forecheck and drive the net but who could also feather a pass over a defenseman's stick and onto a rushing teammate's tape.
It's not surprising then, to discover that another center who starred in Southeastern Pennsylvania inspired Brawley.
"I loved watching (Peter) Forsberg play," he said.
Perhaps that's the best word that defines Brawley's game: Forsberg-esque.
And yet, you have to look past the score sheet to appreciate Brawley's impact on Springfield hockey.
Brawley entered his senior season amid uncertainty, not necessarily in his own play — after all he was coming off consecutive All-Delco seasons — but in his team's. Springfield went undefeated in the Central League during the 2012-13 campaign.
But they lost the Flyers Cup final, 7-3, to West Chester East, and graduated captain and Daily Times Player of the Year Bill Swahl. Brawley became the team leader almost by default. Springfield coach Phil Eastman challenged him to be more.
"Ryan has always had a real fierce will to win," Eastman said. "When you're the youngest of four hockey playing brothers I guess that comes naturally. This year he knew he had to take on a real leadership role. He embraced it."
Given Brawley's soft-spoken personality, that might come as a surprise.
"Off the ice, he's thoughtful, introspective," Eastman said. "But on the ice you can see the intensity come through in him."
Brawley led by example, however cliché it may sound. When asked to name a play that epitomized his captain, Eastman didn't hesitate.
"When I think about Ryan I think about all the goals he scored, of course," Eastman said. "But against Garnet Valley (in the Central League championship game), he back-checked all the way from the offensive zone to steal the puck on an odd-man rush. That's the kind of effort that coaches and his teammates see."
Another play comes to mind. In the Flyers Cup semifinal against frequent tormenter East, Springfield led 3-1. Cougars forward Rich Brown, nearing the end of his shift, sent the puck down the ice in an apparent icing. An East defenseman coasted lazily in its pursuit, easing up in anticipation of a whistle.
It never came. Brawley, starting close to his blue line, chased him down. He reached with one hand around the unsuspecting Viking and sent the puck toward the East net. Teammate Ryan Vogt was there to bury the rebound. At 4-1, the game was all but decided.
It's those kinds of plays that separated Brawley from his peers. His unrelenting desire to win games drove the Springfield dynasty through good times and bad. In a difficult early winter stretch, the Cougars lost three games, twice to Garnet Valley and once to Haverford. Brawley remained unconcerned.
"What I said was, 'It's the team that's playing the best at the end of the year that will win, these teams won't hurt us then,'" he said.
Brawley's play reflected that confidence. In seven playoff games — three in the Central League, four in Flyers Cup — the captain scored nine goals and added seven assists as Springfield went 6-1.
They avenged January losses to Haverford and Garnet Valley along the way. The Cougars' lone defeat came against West Chester Rustin in the Flyers Cup final. Brawley was Springfield's best player that night, too, scoring their only goal in a 5-1 loss.
Brawley accomplished all of this as he split time between the Cougars and his Junior Flyers club team.
"You're at hockey every night," he said. "By playoffs, you're playing four games a week. It's tiring. I would go home, sleep, eat dinner, and go to practice."
Eastman extolled Brawley's investment in Springfield hockey.
"The club hockey demands are significant. It's tough," he said. "When you have such a talented player that is committed to the high school program, it has a huge impact on the rest of the guys."
Brawley graduates after his finest offensive season in his career: 33 goals and 61 points in 25 games. He will look to continue his hockey career at the college Division I club level. Duquesne, West Chester, and Drexel remain in the mix.
As for his Springfield career, Brawley offered these final thoughts.
"I gave it my all in my entire four years," he said. "I was a good captain. I want to be one of those names that the coaches bring up — like the Billy Swahl team. I want them to talk about the Ryan Brawley team."
Eastman left little doubt about that.
"Ryan Brawley is somebody we'll be talking about to future players for a long while," he said.
Daily Times Super 7
1. Springfield (19-5-1)
2. Garnet Valley (17-4-1)
3. Haverford (15-6-1)
4. Ridley (12-8-0)
5. Episcopal Academy (7-3)
6. Upper Darby (7-9-2)
7. Radnor (8-12-0)