10 years ago, Brandon Gormley was one of the NHL’s premier defensive prospects. Prior to his NHL debut, he was a Memorial Cup champion, a top-15 draft pick, and a World Junior bronze medalist. He was a powerful, two-way defender with a strong shot, decent speed, and looked destined for a top-four spot. With him on their blue line, the Arizona Coyotes were certainly destined for long-term success. How could they not when they possessed a player who had been called the next Shea Weber or Duncan Keith?
It didn’t take long, however, for those predictions to evaporate into thin air. Gormley, although highly regarded, was unable to secure a spot with the Coyotes and soon found himself without an NHL contract, forcing him to consider either leaving to play in Europe or hanging up his skates. As he’s journeyed through Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Russia, he’s slowly faded from the collective hockey fan’s mind and is remembered as not much more than an NHL bust.
But with the NHL’s decision to not send its players to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Gormley has been given an unexpected second chance to perform on the biggest hockey stage in the world. It’s no surprise he was selected to take the place of active NHLers; during his time in Europe, he’s been remarkably consistent and injury-free. Not every prospect develops at the same time, and there’s a chance that he just needed a bit of extra time and a few scenery changes to find his rhythm. And, from the looks of things, he’ll have a chance to be one of Canada’s best players at the Olympic tournament.
Gormley’s Dominant Junior Career
In 2009-10, Brandon Gormley was fast becoming one of the most intriguing prospects eligible for the NHL draft. The Prince Edward Island native dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with the Moncton Wildcats in his draft year, scoring 43 points in 58 games plus 17 points in 21 playoffs games as the team breezed through to a league championship. It was impossible to not see his impact on the team – he was seventh in points and third in plus/minus – and so he was awarded the QMJHL’s Top Prospect Award and earned a spot at the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) Top Prospect’s Game.
With the 2010 NHL Draft looming, it was anyone’s guess as to how high Gormley would go. Most considered him a top-10 pick, but some scouts saw him as the best defenceman available over the likes of Cam Fowler and Erik Gudbranson, while others went even further to suggest he was a top-five pick. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to see him fall to 13th, but the Coyotes were ecstatic, snapping him up on the spot and quickly signed him to an entry-level deal. After the signing, general manager Don Maloney said, “He is a talented young defenseman and we are confident that he will be a big part of our organization for years to come.”
The initial returns were exactly what the Coyotes hoped for. Over the next two seasons, Gormley blossomed into a point-per-game defender, hitting double-digits in goals twice. He also was selected to Team Canada at the 2012 World Junior tournament, where he helped lead the team to a bronze medal finish with six points in six games, the highest totals of any defenceman at the tournament, and was named the tournament’s Best Defenceman. To cap off an incredible junior career, he won the Memorial Cup with the Shawinigan Cataractes, where he came in third in team scoring with nine points in six contests.
From the Coyotes to the Minors
Injuries were starting to become a concern, however. Prior to his dominant World Junior appearance in 2012, a dislocated knee kept him off the 2011 World Junior roster, while a foot injury kept him out of much of the 2011-12 season, plus several playoff games. But that all seemed behind him after he made his debut with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Portland Pirates in 2012-13. He played in all but eight games that season and was the fourth-most dressed player on the team. The following season, Gormley made his NHL debut, and although the speed of the game was higher than he expected, he impressed his coach with his smart, two-way game.
After such a strong start, things started to fall apart. He appeared in five NHL games in 2013-14 and looked ready to challenge for a regular spot in the lineup, but an injury kept him out of training camp, setting him behind the rest of the team. He still played 27 NHL games in 2014-15 and scored two goals and four points, but averaged the second-lowest ice time of any defender on the team. Injuries started to pile up, and while he spent time recovering, other defencemen on the depth chart began to surpass him. When he finally returned to action, he still looked like he had in his debut – solid, smart, but not fast enough for the high-speed NHL.
It all collapsed on Sep. 10, 2015, when the Coyotes traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for defenceman Stefan Elliott. Both players were struggling with their current teams and needed a change of scenery, but Elliott had at least shown more consistency after going 49th overall in 2009. It was a clear sign that Gormley was no longer considered a top prospect, but an injury-prone 23-year-old at risk of becoming a bust.
Gormley didn’t have a much better time with the Avalanche, appearing in 26 games and recording just a single assist. He wasn’t re-signed that offseason and the New Jersey Devils decided to take a chance on him, signing him to a two-way deal, but after 35 games in the AHL, they flipped him to the Ottawa Senators for future considerations. Because it was a post-deadline, he wasn’t eligible to play in the NHL that season, but in the end, it didn’t matter. After 17 AHL games and five points, the Senators let him walk to free agency. With no one calling, he eventually decided to leave North America, signing with Mora IK of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) in October 2018.
Gormley’s European Resurgence
Part of Gormley’s decision to transition to Europe came from his experience at the 2016 Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. For the first time since 2010 at the U18 Hlinka Gretzky Tournament in Czechia, he was on the larger international ice surface, and it seemed to suit him well. He finished the tournament tied for sixth with four points, a gold medal around his neck, and a new perspective on playing overseas.
In his first season in Sweden, Gormley put up 17 points in 41 games, a stark contrast to his performance in the NHL. Not only was the shorter schedule better for injuries, but so was the pace of the game, and it allowed him to adjust to the new style fairly quickly. According to him, “the biggest change is the wider ice surface that allows players to have more time with the puck and makes it more of a skill game. The game is really fast and high skill which is a fun style of hockey to play.”
After that first season in the SHL, there was no end to teams who wanted to acquire his services. After finishing his season in Sweden, he tried his hand in Finland’s Liiga with TPS. But the SHL came calling again, this time from Frölunda, who needed another top defender after Mattias Nörstebö went down with an injury. Gormley was happy to return to the league, where this time he joined former Spengler Cup teammate Chay Genoway on the blue line. Together, they pushed Frölunda to their first title since 2016 and their third Champions Hockey League title in four years.
After two seasons in Sweden, Gormley decided to ply his skill elsewhere, first signing with the Deutsche Eishockey Liga’s Straubing Tigers, then off to Russia’s KHL, first with Dinamo Riga and then to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He hasn’t been the offensive catalyst he was previously, but at 29 years old, he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career. Speed was never his strength and in North America on the smaller ice surface, he was overwhelmed, which led to frequent injuries. But in Europe, he can use his intelligence and vision to control the play, which allows him to excel in all areas of the ice.
Off to the Olympics
Gormley was an easy choice to represent Canada after the NHL opted to not participate this year. In Europe, he has a long history of success in nearly every major league and will be one of the team’s top point-producing defenders. His speed has also increased, thanks to the more open ice, which will make him a constant threat in Beijing.
But it’s not just about success. Getting selected for any international team is always an honour, but the Olympics is a different experience altogether. He’ll also become just the third player from Prince Edward Island to play in the esteemed tournament, following Brad Richards in 2006 and Billy MacMillan in 1968. In an interview with CBC, his mother, Sharon Gormley, shared how excited he was as he head to Canada’s training camp in Switzerland. “He’s over the moon. It’s a huge honour,” she said. “It’s quite a ride. He’s had lots of ups and downs but he’s always loved the game. It’s all he’s ever wanted.”
Ups and downs may be an understatement. It’s been a long road for Gormley to find a place he fits, and he’s finally getting that in a place he likely never expected. And who knows? There’s always a chance that a scout sees his game and thinks he would fit on their NHL team; it happened with Elliott in 2018 after making the Canadian team at the Pyeongchang Olympics. But in the end, it’s not about fame and fortune. The most important part is he’s enjoying the game, despite being thousands of miles from home. Gormley is finally looking like the player everyone thought he would be in 2010, and he finally gets to show that to the rest of the world.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.