In hockey jargon, a player blessed with skating skills, and especially speed on their skates, is said to have “good wheels.”
For Minnesota Gophers senior forward Brannon McManus, good wheels have been part of his skill set — literally — since he first learned to skate before kindergarten in Southern California.
The youngest (by nine years) of three McManus boys who were primarily raised 40 miles west of downtown Los Angeles in the suburb of Upland, a 3-year-old Brannon would naturally try to emulate his siblings.
“His two older brothers literally played roller hockey in the driveway every day,” said Barry McManus, Brannon’s father. “Brannon, from the time he was in diapers, would watch them and wanted to be like them. So he just organically grew to love it. He always had a thing for coordination and balance.”
Walking upright was still a relatively new thing for Brannon when he put on one inline skate and learned to wheel around the driveway, experiencing his first hockey edges and turns on wheels, long before he ever tried hockey on ice.
“I didn’t even think about ice when I started getting into hockey. I was always a roller hockey guy,” Brannon recalled. “I’d skate on one skate and pedal with my right foot to teach myself to skate a little bit, then I worked my way up to two. That’s a normal thing in California. Roller hockey is pretty big out there.”
At age 5 or 6, he moved to an ice rink for the first time, and loved it. While some kids find ice hockey to be cold and uncomfortable and intimidating, Brannon was a natural, playing on youth hockey teams all across the sprawling Los Angeles metro area. His training also included on-ice sessions with a Ukrainian immigrant named Igor Nikulin, three times a week for nearly a decade. McManus said Nikulin, who died in April 2020 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, was the biggest influence on his hockey career.
Maxing the miles for hockey
In Minnesota, it is easy for youth hockey parents to grumble about the hotel bills and that long drive to Rochester or to Duluth or to the Twin Cities for a tournament over the weekend. For those in a hockey-centric region like this one, the life of the youth hockey player (and parent) in California is hard to fathom.
“When we were older, my dad was kind of the team manager for the LA Selects and we had a pretty good team. A lot of players are playing college hockey and some are even in the NHL,” Brannon said, rattling off names like Iowa Wild forward Ivan Lodina, San Jose Sharks center Alexander Chmelevski, Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson and Boston College women’s team captain Cayla Barnes, all of whom were his Southern California youth hockey teammates.
“We always had to travel to Chicago, to Minnesota, to Michigan, to St. Louis. We couldn’t play games in California, because there were no teams that good. So we were traveling every weekend or every other weekend. It was a lot for the families.”
Barnes, who was a member of the gold medal winners for Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics, found boys teams in Southern California was the best place to learn and grow in the game. She and McManus remain good friends today.
“She wore the 'C' and I wore the 'A.' And she deserved to be the captain. She was our best player,” Brannon said. “She played with us all the way through first-year bantams. Nobody could beat her. She was too good for girls hockey in Cali so she had to play with us."
Special skill set
Even with all of that ice hockey in his life, Brannon kept playing roller hockey in the summer, enjoying the lower-pressure atmosphere and the open-air nature of the wheeled game. St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson, who played professional roller hockey for a few years in the 1990s after his on-ice playing career at Minnesota Duluth concluded, said that the players who learn the game on wheels bring a special skill set to the ice.
“We always talk about the California kids, whether it was Robby Jackson or Patrick Newell or some of the guys who played here at St. Cloud State. They tend to have really good puck skills because in roller hockey you’re handling that thing a lot,” Larson said. “It’s fast, it’s a lot of puck touches, it’s a lot of creativity and there’s not as much physicality so the stick skill part of the game is really enhanced. Those California kids tend to have that. They can usually rip it, they’ve got great hands and they’ve usually got a lot of creativity.”
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When Brannon was in his early teens, his parents moved from Upland to Newport Beach, an oceanside town in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Brannon was suddenly the new kid in school and on youth sports teams, and brought a decade of hockey experience to his middle school’s roller team. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone.
“I was the new guy. Nobody knew anything about me or that I was good at hockey. So I showed up to the first game and they weren’t good. My first two games I was scoring every shift I was out there. It was hilarious,” Brannon said.
His rink prowess prompted the organizers to make a new team rule just for Brannon. “The next week they said I could play but I couldn’t score, so I just became the goalie instead. These were my friends and I wanted to be a part of it. So I ended up playing goalie for the rest of that season and we won the championship.”
Already used to being the “new guy” at his school, and watching a California youth hockey teammate named Ben Lown head to Minnesota for prep school, Brannon set his sights on Shattuck-St. Mary’s as his next destination. Barry brought his son to Faribault for a tour and they fell in love with the setting immediately. Brannon’s mother Toni needed more convincing before signing off on her youngest child moving 1,800 miles away for high school.
Shattuck led to another boost in his hockey skills (he recorded 120 points in 65 games during his first season there), and a top-notch education. After two junior hockey seasons in the United States Hockey League, McManus accepted a scholarship offer from Don Lucia’s Gophers staff, and was named an alternate captain as a senior.
With six games remaining in what may or may not be his final collegiate regular season (due to the pandemic, players have been granted another year of NCAA eligibility and he could feasibly return next season), McManus is second on the team in assists (12) and game-winning goals (3) despite missing four games due to injury earlier in the season.
Majoring in business, McManus will likely have a chance to follow the lead of his father, who has run a successful steel fabrication company for decades.
When the temperature is below zero for weeks at a time, as it seemingly is every winter in Minnesota, it is a standard of the media covering Gopher hockey to ask McManus and the other warm-weather Gophers (defenseman Ryan Johnson is also from Southern California, while forward Nathan Burke is from Arizona) how they’re holding up. Having lived in the north since he was 14 when he first moved to Shattuck, McManus has developed some thicker blood.
Despite his roots in the roller hockey and beach culture, he sees himself sticking around these parts after his days as a Gopher are done.
“I’m more of a Minnesota guy at this point,” McManus said with his customary friendly chuckle. “When my hockey career is all done and I’m starting my life, I think I’m a Minnesota boy.”
On that note, it is perhaps important to remind people that despite their popularity in the Southern California sports scene, Rollerblades were invented in 1981 by Scott Olson, in Minnesota.