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RAISED FOR THE MOMENT & GROUNDED BY EXPERIENCE

Friday, February 2nd
RAISED FOR THE MOMENT & GROUNDED BY EXPERIENCE

RAISED FOR THE MOMENT & GROUNDED BY EXPERIENCE 

Erik Bradford’s Orangeville, ON upbringing set the stage for defining season in leadership and statistics.

By Chris Cadeau for K-Wings.com

Fiery young voices mixed with the cracks of clashing hockey sticks. Those acoustics are meshed perfectly in the sub-zero air coupled with scampering boots crunching on salted concrete. 

That’s the sound of K-Wings veteran forward Erik Bradford's recesses at Credit Meadows Elementary School two decades ago in Orangeville, ON. A place where hockey is life, and performance during recess mini-sticks (street hockey) set the tone for his dominant path as a K-Wing.

For some, it’s frigid white noise. To childhood friend and current Iowa Wild defenseman Brenden Miller, it’s what he remembers when asked about first memories of Bradford’s intensity and love for the game.  

“At recess, we were not allowed to lose and had to work as a team,” Miller said. “Erik always wanted to be the best since we were 10. Mini-sticks, football, volleyball, hockey, everything.”

Currently, the nine-year pro and team alternate captain is working on a career season with the Kalamazoo Wings. 

In 2023-24, Bradford is averaging 1.13 points per game (14g-30a) with 11 multi-point affairs and one ECHL Player of the Week nod (Dec. 4 thru Dec. 10). 

Bradford’s on the pace to shatter his career-best 63-point performance with Utah and Toledo (17g-46a) in 2016-17, and now has 102 points (34g-68a) in 101 games played in red, white and blue in less than two complete seasons. 

The consistent year-over-year willingness to improve is something the 29-year-old attributes to his roots.

“Miller and I would spend countless hours in the streets, on the pond, or at school competing to be the best,” Bradford said. “It’s kinda crazy to think about all of us being outside until our parents called us home every day despite the weather.”

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Bradford (lower right), Miller (upper right) and teammates pose after championship win in 2004 (Courtesy: Erik Bradford).

And true to the team-first mentality Bradford was raised with, he gives most of this season’s success individually to his teammates.

“This season is all just a reflection of how hard we’ve worked as a whole,” Bradford said. “We’ve dug ourselves out of a hole, and my teammates are the reason my name is toward the front of it.”

Forward-thinking evolution 

As many know, giving everything to something doesn’t always reward. In Bradford’s case, he’s always been deemed one of the hardest-working players on each of the seven ECHL teams he’s suited up for in his career. Yet, it’s been as many seasons since he’s tasted the postseason with Utah. 

This season, though, there’s a new switch activated. One that channels results-based improvement instead of temporarily detrimental self-evaluation.

A prime example of this came on Dec. 29 versus the Toledo Walleye. Currently, Kalamazoo’s only loss to their bitter rival at home this season. Bradford took a penalty just over a minute into overtime. The tough call led to the Walleye’s game-winning goal. 

There was no dwelling on the moment that put his team behind the 8-ball. Rather it was an immediate shift into ‘how do I get better from this?’ which resulted in a 1.5-hour video session the next day.

“It was an instant move for him into forward-thinking,” said Kohl Schultz, K-Wings assistant coach. “We sat down and just watched. He’s a hockey nut and was able to come to his own conclusions on how we improve. No dwelling, which embodies this team as a whole.”

Sure enough, Bradford amassed a career-high in points a day later with five (2g-3a) in a 7-0 drubbing of the Indy Fuel on New Year’s Eve. The power-play popped off for two goals, and Bradford notched an assist on both tallies. 

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Bradford celebrates with teammates after goal (Kim Moss / K-Wings)

The power play, not the mistake, was the focus of the previous video session with Schultz. 

Earned dividends 

Teammates believe Bradford is being rewarded for his commitment to the game. Bradford’s 2023-24, thus far, has him slotted as the team leader in goals (13), assists (27) and points (40).

“Brads is starting to mature into that primetime age for a hockey player,” said Justin Taylor, K-Wings veteran forward & all-time leading scorer. “He sets the example for younger players with his dedication to working on his craft. He’s someone I look up to, too, with how he gets himself prepared on a week-to-week basis.”

Taylor’s take is completely on par with the recruiting strategy of former Kalamazoo head coach Nick Bootland. The winningest coach in franchise history grew up in nearby Shelburne, and knew Orangeville hockey better than most, understanding the potential that rested within players from the area.

“I tried to get Erik in a K-Wings uniform each of the previous five seasons,” said Nick Bootland, current Hershey Bears (AHL) assistant coach. “I mean the offense is great, but it’s the way he works everywhere else on the ice that attracted me. Erik does everything as a forward and loves to block shots. That’s just how they make them where he’s from.”

Bootland was right to pursue Bradford so hotly. The Orangeville kid’s results speak for themselves.

Over the last two seasons, Bradford’s also seen ample AHL playing time (54gp-3g-8a) with the Grand Rapid Griffins and the Cleveland Monsters. He calls it a reward for “how hard I’ve worked” with a consistent goal of “playing at the highest level possible.”

Self Care, Resilience & Evolving Leader

Bradford’s all-around evolution as a pro is attributed to his ability to adapt to the game’s ebbs and flows. Not only has he come back stronger after multiple injuries, but he’s been vulnerable enough to open up about mental health. 

A perfect example of the latter is when Bradford opened up to WWMT about how he’s relied on his four-legged companion, Kash, to assist him with anxiety in 2022.

The forward’s learned that to be his best on and off the ice, he has to lean on his NHL-caliber cousins (McGinn’s: Brock, Jamie & Tye), family and friends in Orangeville (most importantly: parents, fiance & Kash), and his teammates.

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Bradford (second from right) with McGinn Cousins (Courtesy: Erik Bradford).

“The people in my life have taught me to how to push through the roadblocks in my way,” Bradford said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, and sometimes it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but learned to listen to my teammates & support staff. This has helped me realize that on-ice results don’t define me and the way you treat people is how you’re remembered.”

Bradford also owns a methodical gameday preparation routine, narrowed down to the same number of sips of water and Gatorade before leaving morning skate. 

Another key to Brads’ success can be attributed to a simple but effective tool for daily improvement learned from his late Hockey HOF head coach from the Barrie Colts (OHL).

“I remember Dale Hawerchuk, preaching to watch the NHL daily and saying, ‘Free education, free education, free education,’” Bradford said.

While some may see it as fandom, Bradford uses it to get better daily.

“He watches hockey religiously,” Schultz said. “He watches at home. He watches the Maple Leafs. He watches his cousins who play in the NHL. We dug ourselves out of a big hole at 7 and 11, and his forward-thinking of wanting to watch and learn helped with that.” 

Overall, Erik has found a way to grow as a professional, not just as a player, but as a leader. Tempering his intensity, perfectionism and infatuation for the game has made him even more valuable to this group of K-Wings. 

“I think Erik has taken his leadership to another level this year,” said Joel Martin, Kalamazoo Wings head coach and director of hockey operations. “He’s been a shoulder for young players to lean and learn from. He’s taken the initiative to get out in the community with multiple hospital visits. He’s also been a positive voice in the room when things aren’t going well, pushing a team-first message and belief to our group.”  

And as it is with many veterans striving towards their best possible professional self, there’s also a fire in Erik’s eye when discussing the aspiration of a long playoff run. One that takes him right back to Orangeville.

“That’s the only goal,” Bradford said. “We were only three games out two years ago here, and one game out with Cleveland last year, I want it bad for our group here that works so hard and for the fans. That’s also how I was raised. I’m from a town of 25k with countless pro athletes. It took a village to get me here. I know how fortunate I am for their support and I want to continue to make them proud.”

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The Kalamazoo Wings are a professional hockey team located in southwest Michigan that has been a staple in the Kalamazoo, MI professional sports landscape since 1974. The K-Wings compete in the ECHL and are the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Canucks. Kalamazoo plays their 36 regular season home games at Wings Event Center from October through April.

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