There’s a line in the hit musical Hamilton that goes, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
Former Brahmas defenseman Justin Kinnunen – often called “Juice” by those who knew him – left behind a legacy to be proud of.
If we stick strictly to hockey – and there certainly was a lot of it – Kinnunen played in the NAHL with the Soo Indians before suiting up for Northern Michigan University for four years. He then played in the ECHL with the Dayton Bombers for two seasons before heading overseas for a year. After that, he spent some time in the now-defunct UHL before finishing up his hockey career right here in Texas, donning the purple Brahma logo and playing a few stints with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage.
In three seasons with the Texas Brahmas, Kinnunen registered 104 points in 160 regular season games, a steady defender with plenty of offensive upside. He was a key cog in the Brahmas’ playoff success, including their President’s Cup run in 2009. He always was a leader, but wore a captain’s letter on his chest in his final season with the team.
The impact Kinnunen had on the Brahmas organization as a player is tangible.
“[He] was the ultimate hockey player,” Brahmas Vice President Chad Siewert said. “He led by example. He was very quiet. He didn’t yell, he didn’t cuss, he didn’t scream at people. He was the consummate professional. Everything he did was the way that we wanted it done and people always looked to him for approval.”
But as is often the case with good men, his impact off the ice was even more important. When owners Frank and Dr. Sal Trazzera took over the rink and the Brahmas franchise in 2007, their dream was to build a hockey community that local families could be proud of. Kinnunen was exactly the sort of player and person that the Trazzeras envisioned when they thought about what they wanted their organization to represent.
“Justin was an All-Star person, hockey player, and friend,” Frank Trazzera said. “He remains one of the most genuine people to have ever represented us, and he will forever be remembered in our Brahmas family.”
Even among those who never knew Kinnunen, like this year’s team, there’s admiration and a certain measure of pride when speaking about the former player. After all, Kinnunen’s number 13 is etched beneath the ice behind the Brahmas’ net, and they wear a Justin Kinnunen patch on their jerseys. There’s a strong sense of brotherhood among hockey players in general, and an even stronger brotherhood among Brahmas past and present.
“All the guys know his story, so this season is sort of a ‘do it for Justin’ kind of deal,” Alternate captain Austin Kamer said. “He gave a lot to this organization, so hopefully we can do good for him.”
“Everything I’ve heard about him and his character is fantastic,” Brahmas captain John Zimmerman added. “This organization is all about family, and this celebration [of Kinnunen’s life] is one I’m excited to take part in.”
For Brahmas Head Coach Dan Wildfong, the evening will be an emotional one, as he knew Kinnunen well, having coached him for all three of his seasons with the Brahmas. “He was definitely, I’m talking NHL-fast, faster than a lot of guys in the NHL. The guys nicknamed him the Greyhound. He was very thin, very skinny, and he could get up and down the ice like the best of them,” Wildfong said. “And he was always, always very caring and had a team-first mentality.”
“He was a special player, and a better person. He’s obviously going to be missed,” Wildfong said. “A lot of people couldn’t celebrate his life, couldn’t make it to the funeral. So this is a way to make sure that we celebrate what he’s done not just in hockey but in his life.”
Here’s one last anecdote about Kinnunen: Wildfong likes to have photos of the players hung up above the locker room stalls. Kinnunen’s was among them.
“He was all pissed at me because I put him up, like, ‘Why’d you put me up there? I don’t want to be up there.’ He didn’t want to be recognized like that. He was all team-first. Most people feel like that’s a privilege, and he was just mad,” Wildfong said, smiling.
As with his picture hanging over the locker room stalls, he probably would have hated seeing his number raised in the rafters. Always focused on the team, he would have preferred to avoid individual accolades.
Here’s the thing, though: Players like Kinnunen don’t come around too often. Men like Kinnunen don’t either, and the Brahmas family is well aware of that. Men like Kinnunen deserve every accolade they receive.
The Brahmas are proud to be able to honor Justin Kinnunen, who was and always will be one of the greatest Brahmas to ever be a part of this hockey community.