LOS ANGELES — Seconds after the Florida Panthers chose Erik Gudbranson with the third overall selection at Friday's NHL entry draft, he was mobbed by his mother, Donna, and father, Wayne, in the seats at the Staples Center.
"I don't think I've ever been squeezed so hard as I was by my Dad," said Gudbranson, the Orleans native who starred with the Kingston Frotenacs of the Ontario Hockey League last season. "I kind of heard him breaking down in tears."
It was as much a family moment as a personal moment.
The Gudbransons — Erik has two brothers, Dennis and Alex, and a sister, Chantal — have been a tight-knit unit while dealing with Dennis's fight with leukemia. On Aug. 18, the fifth anniversary of Dennis having a bone marrow transplant, he will be declared cancer free.
"He will be completely cured," said Erik. "It was an absolute treat to have them all here. It makes it twice as special. It's absolutely huge for what my family and I have been through."
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon says Gudbranson's hockey skills are obvious enough. As a 6-4, 195-pound defenceman, he scored two goals and 21 assists in 41 games with Kingston last season -- missing action due to a knee injury and a bout with mononucleosis. Many scouts have suggested he has the hardest slapshot of every prospect in the draft and Gudbranson is also solid in his own end, allowing no forwards an easy ride to the net.
But Tallon says Gudbranson's background, including the way he dealt with his brother's illness, is what sets him apart.
"Character is the number one priority as far as the draft," said Tallon. "Erik has impeccable character. I'm tired of teams coming down to Florida and having a vacation and having easy games and Erik is going to help with that."
While it was a foregone conclusion that Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin would be taken with the top two selections by the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins, there was also plenty of mystery surrounding the following picks.
Adding to the drama was the fact that Gudbranson had a final interview with Panthers general manager Dale Tallon late Thursday. It's the team he wanted to go to all along, primarily because of his respect for Tallon.
"You see what he did with Chicago (where Tallon previous served as general manager)," said Gudbranson. "He built that team from scratch."
The Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000, a drought that Gudbranson is aiming at changing as early as next year. He believes he can make the Panthers next season.
"I understand there's a lot of work to be done, but it's where I want to be."
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- Dale Tallon