He came to London from Capreol, Ontario in 1970, all set to go to university.
Instead, Don Brankley found the London Knights and for the next 38 years, he became an anchor for the organization.
On Friday, the London Knights announced the man, affectionately known as “Branks,” had passed away at the age of 69.
Brankley took over as the Knights’ trainer, which immediately paints a picture of what his duties were for the organization, but his role was rooted far deeper than that.
Ask any player who played for him, Don Brankley played an integral role in helping them become the person they are now.
He wasn’t just the person who did the laundry and made sure players had everything that they needed to step out onto the ice. In the days when organizations were comprised of a coach and a trainer, he took on the role of confidant and friend. He was always someone the players could turn to when they needed advice about life.
His stable of graduates in the hockey world was very large. Some of them rose high enough to have their names etched on the Stanley Cup, but Brankley also took great pride in the London Knights’ alumni who went on to do incredible things after they took off their skates for the final time.
He kept in touch with just as many doctors, lawyers, teachers, salespeople as he did NHL and AHL players.
They were all his boys.
It is difficult to understand the commitment level that Don Brankley exhibited in his time with the London Knights.
It is true that he did live at the London Gardens, which eventually became the London Ice House. In a way, that had him on-call for the team 24 hours a day. The number of times that he dealt with typical problems teenagers encountered would far outweigh the number of goals he watched them score for the Knights.
Branks wasn’t just a fixture behind the scenes. When the puck was dropped, he became as much of a fixture as anyone else involved in the game.
Shouts of “Waterboy” still ring through arenas that the London Knights visit, despite the fact that Don Brankley worked his last game in the 2007-2008 season, before retiring and returning to his hometown.
Branks was as involved with the fans and the visiting players as any trainer has ever been. He had an innate ability to get certain guys off their game.
When called upon, he also had the ability to take on a much different role. Branks once saved the life of a player on the other team who went into seizure during a game. He kept the player from swallowing his tongue.
When the Knights went through their lowest point as a franchise in 1995-96, he held together a group of players who spent a year filled with just three wins, three ties and sixty losses and enabled them to keep their heads high. Through coaching changes and trades that year, Branks put together a year-end banquet that was fit for any league’s awards show. As impossible as it might sound, players left that night proud of the things they had accomplished that season. Months later, four of them were drafted by National Hockey League teams.
For all of the hours that Don Brankley logged in arenas and all of the kilometres that he travelled on buses, to and from those arenas, he had never experienced the feeling of a championship until 2005.
In the Knights’ 40th year as a franchise, they won their first OHL title and then went on to win the Memorial Cup in their home building, setting off a celebration that went into the wee hours of the next day.
Don Brankley didn’t smile a great deal when he was on the bench. He had a look that could make opponents’ blood run ice-cold, but on that championship winning night in late May, 2005, no one had a bigger smile on their face than Branks.
And no doubt, he will always be smiling down on the city that became his home and the organization that became his life.
At Don Brankley’s request, a family graveside service is going to take place in Capreol.