Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Watching Bryan Arneson's heart, grit and elbow grease on the ice for the MacEwan Griffins is something to behold, at times almost like watching a man amongst boys.
For good reason. He is.
The elder statesman on the Griffins at age 26, Arneson has returned to MacEwan a mature hockey player after coming-of-age tours of duty in the minor professional ranks the past couple of seasons.
He spent hours refining his battle technique against some of the toughest hombres in hockey as he worked his way from Wheeling to Worcester in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and also played for Mississippi of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).
"I always had that intensity and passion to me," said Arneson, who played a gritty role for three seasons on the Griffins (2014-17) before going pro. "Coming back this year, obviously I'm a little older. I realized the last couple of years playing against guys who are 28 and 32, playing against men, where that man strength comes from.
"I'd say playing those last two years professionally helped me identify how to outsmart people and using your brain to battle instead of just muscle."
The seed was sown for his pro journey in the summer before the 2016-17 season when he was invited to an ECHL camp with Brampton. At the time, Arneson chose to return to MacEwan and helped the Griffins win their first of three-straight ACAC Championships.
"After that season, I had another opportunity where I was approached by the Pittsburgh Penguins' affiliate in Wheeling," he said. "I got invited to a few skates in Wilkes-Barre where their AHL team plays. I went down there.
"I thought I skated pretty well and had a good showing," he continued. "I came back home to work my summer job and two days later on my lunch break I got called by the Wheeling Nailers coach and Billy Guerin was with them. They offered me a contract to sign. Just with injuries and the way sports go, you never know if you're going to get an opportunity to realize your dream. I wanted to take it now because you'll never know if you'll have that chance again."
So, Arneson left the Griffins and played on a line in Wheeling in 2017-18 with Toronto Maple Leafs' second round pick Kenny Ryan and Arizona Coyotes' sixth-rounder Hunter Fejes.
"The East Coast hockey league kind of gets a bad rap from those who haven't seen it first hand, but there's a lot of guys there who were first round picks and later round picks," he said. "I couldn't believe how good the hockey was. I marveled at it every day."
Arneson played 11 games in the ECHL while battling some injuries and also played 43 games with the Mississippi River Kings in the SPHL. It was always his intention to eventually finish his Commerce degree at MacEwan, though, so he rejoined the Griffins in the second semester last season.
However, Arneson injured his elbow in the first practice and couldn't get healthy in time to meet ACAC eligibility standards last season. Hence why his official return was delayed until last weekend.
It's been a welcome homecoming as the veteran adds leadership and grit to a young team learning to play the right way.
"He brings a little bit of sandpaper," said interim head coach Sean Ringrose. "He plays the game on the edge a little bit. He plays a physical game and works hard. He'll finish his checks and just plays a heavy game. You need guys like that in your lineup and he's done a good job of it so far."
Arneson, who has learned leadership from former Griffins Nolan Yaremchuk, Ryan Baskerville and Brett Njaa, feels he has plenty of advice from the pro ranks to pass on to the current group.
"Where I played the last couple of years, I played with guys who had NHL games and AHL games," he said. "Seeing how they carried themselves and how they approached each day in the gym and on the ice, nutrition and keeping your body where it needs to be to perform is something I really pride myself on and try to pass that onto the guys."
Part of living healthy is dealing with Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with during his final season of junior with the Canmore Eagles in 2013-14.
"It hasn't really changed. It's pretty easy now," he said. "Six years now I've been playing with it. Even in the States it wasn't an issue. I took care of it pretty well there."
Arneson says he looks up to Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi, who is dealing with the same thing.
"Domi's cool because he has a yellow lab. I have a chocolate lab," said Arneson of his dog Bauer.
"He has his dog trained to sense when he's having low blood sugar and alert people or even bring him things, which I thought was pretty cool."
Bauer doesn't have that level of training – it took two years for Domi's service dog Orion to learn – but the connection is still interesting for Arneson.
Arneson one day hopes to continue his pro journey again.
"As for the dream, it's still there," he said. "Even when I came back last year from Worcester, I had a few opportunities to go to Germany or France, but right now the priority is to get my degree in Commerce and look at that after."