SACO — Gilbert Brulé walked off the ice after more than an hour of practice. Sweat dripped from his brow, and from the flowing locks of hair escaping the sides and back of his helmet, some of it collecting among the unshaven whiskers adorning his face.

But he was smiling.

The game of hockey has always made Brulé smile, whether playing in Quesnel, British Columbia, or Portland, Maine.

It’s the latter — and most recent — stop, playing for the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League, that has Brulé beaming.

After an unsuccessful bid to make the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes in training camp this fall, the former first-round NHL draft pick signed a Professional Tryout Agreement with the Pirates, the Coyotes’ minor-league affiliate.

Through four games, Brulé struggled to find a scoring touch as he battled through a pair of minor injuries attributable to his long layoff from the game.

“I missed a lot of hockey last year, so just getting back in the swing of things, getting my body used to a schedule again has been a bit of a grind,” Brulé said. “But I’m starting to feel good now, and play better.”

In his four most recent games, he’s been unstoppable, with six goals and an assist for seven points, an average of nearly two per contest.

“He’s been real good for us,” Pirates’ head coach Ray Edwards said. “Not only has he been good production-wise, but he’s been really good with some of our young players.”

On most teams, even an NHL-seasoned 26-year-old like Brulé would be at least grazing the median age. But not with the Pirates, who before adding Brulé and veteran defenseman Randy Jones a few weeks into the season had an average age of 22.

“It’s easy to forget, he’s only 26,” Pirates’ GM Brad Treliving said. “I’d love to be 26 again. Lots of guys, they’re drafted high, and that comes with a lot of expectations. But different guys develop differently. He still has speed, he still has hands and can shoot the puck, and he has young legs.”

But Brulé has been through more off the ice than most 26-year-old hockey players..

Fractured journey

The Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Brulé No. 6 overall in the first round of the 2005 NHL draft. He skated in seven games for the NHL club that season, recording four points. He finished that season with his junior club, the Vancouver Giants, racking up 38 points in 27 regular-season games, and 30 more in 18 postseason contests.

The Giants went on to win the Memorial Cup, Canadian junior hockey’s top prize, in 2007. Brulé went to the NHL.

With the Blue Jackets, Brulé struggled to find the scoring touch he so prominently displayed in Vancouver. In 139 games over two seasons, he managed only 28 points for a team that languished among the league’s worst.

“The NHL level is the best level of hockey in the world for a reason,” Brulé said. “It is a grind, and every night you have to be consistent and playing well. It’s very tough, lots of pressure on you. But you have to feed off that and drive through it.”

In the offseason, the Blue Jackets traded Brulé to the Edmonton Oilers.

“I was pretty young to get traded,” Brulé said. “But I think it was nice to get traded in the offseason at least, instead of during the season where it would have been a little more hectic.”

His best season with his second NHL team came in 2009-10, when he popped in 17 goals and added 20 assists for 37 points in 65 games.

He played in only 41 games the following season, and had nine points and 41 penalty minutes to show for it.

Something was off.

“(My father) was calling me seven or eight times a day, wanting to talk,” Brulé told Tony Gallagher in an interview for The Province of British Columbia, Canada.

In that interview, Brulé said that his father, Chris Brulé, was misappropriating money he was giving him under the auspices that of building a company for him. Instead, the player said, his father was “doing something else with the money, something that ended poorly.”

“Basically, he was taking money from me,” Brulé told Gallagher.

Chris Brulé disputes his son’s account of what happened, telling Gallagher, “No decisions were ever made without his authorization.”

Regardless of the details, Brulé, the hockey player, was not happy.

But he tried to play through it. He saw a specialist who put him on medication, which he believed affected his play. The Oilers tried to help, and he tried to play though it. That didn’t work either.

The following season, 2011-12, Brulé started the season in the AHL, with Edmonton’s affiliate in Oklahoma City.

“I went down to Oklahoma City for a bit, played well there, had a good time there, it was a good team we were on,” Brulé said. “It was a lot of fun, and they ended up calling me up eventually.”

But to reach Edmonton, Brulé needed to clear waivers.

He didn’t. Phoenix snagged him on his way through.

“That was interesting,” Brulé said. “You come to Phoenix, though, it’s a great place to play hockey. It was a big change, going from minus-30 Celsius in Edmonton to go to Phoenix where it’s plus-30 all the time.”

He was a piece of the Coyotes’ run to the Western Conference Finals that year, his first trip to the playoffs in the NHL.

And then, there was a lockout. The AHL got crowded with veterans as the NHL shut down.

Brulé signed with Zurich of the top league in Switzerland. But more issues — about which he is still reluctant to discuss — forced him home early, after only 14 games.

“When I was over there, I had some issues back home that I needed to take care of, and it was really weighing heavy on me,” Brulé said. “It was tough to play under pressure and play hockey at the top of my game when you’re thinking about that stuff all the time, so just taking that break was such a big lift for me.

“They started at the beginning of August, I went at the end of August, and the lockout went for a couple more months,” Brulé continued. “After that happened, honestly, I was wishing I’d stayed home and just trained and gotten ready and gone to Phoenix. But what happened happened and I’m glad I went through it.”

On the way back

Brulé didn’t play anywhere after the lockout ended last season.

“It was a very tough decision to make, to come home and take some time off,” Brulé said. “It was much-needed and I feel like I’m a better person mentally and physically after taking that break. I had lots of time to train, and time to get things settled back home.”

Teams weren’t lighting up Brulé’s phone during the summer with offers, either. But the team with which he last skated in the NHL, the Coyotes, showed some interest, and gave him a chance as an invited player at training camp.

Brulé didn’t make the Coyotes’ roster out of camp, and the team didn’t sign him immediately to a contract. Instead, he waited a few weeks and the team signed Brulé to a PTO, a tryout agreement with the Pirates.

“The idea was, camp was short,” Treliving said. ” We still thought there was an opportunity for him, so we told him, ‘Let’s get you some games and we can continue to evaluate and see where it goes.”

“It’s a team that knows me well. That’s why I came back here,” Brulé said. “(Phoenix coach Dave) Tippett knows me well. They know the way I play. I just had to get playing again.

“It helps, because they know what kind of player I am and what I can do,” Brulé added, “I think it’s just a matter of me getting to play some games, finding my groove and getting back into the swing of things here.”

After battling through some early, expected physical obstacles, Brulé once against started displaying the form that led to being drafted in the first round.

“We didn’t know what to expect with him,” Edwards said. “We are getting to know each other and trust each other, and he’s been a solid player for us.

“He can score; he can make plays,” Edwards added. “As a right-handed shot, he’s a player we can use for faceoffs in key situations on that side of the ice if we need to.”

Most importantly, the talented 26-year-old is once again smiling, both on the ice, and off of it.

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