Brendan Gaunce has never been one for whining.
He’s never been a prima donna. He’s never been the kind of player who needed constant coddling by coaches.
For someone still in his teenage years, Gaunce is astute and surprisingly pragmatic.
Take, for instance, this summer when the first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks was knocked during a radio interview Team 1040 by Team Canada’s world junior coach, Brent Sutter after Gaunce attended the national team’s camp.
“He’s a big guy and he’s a ways away from being a pro player yet,” said Sutter of Gaunce, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound centre.
“He’s a very defensive-oriented guy as far as understanding the game. He knows his limits offensively, but he’s a big power forward who’s a decent skater and he’s got some good skills. But I see him more as a third- or fourth-line player in the National Hockey League, more of a power guy.”
Not exactly the kind of confidence-inducing talk you want to hear from a man who both played and coached in the NHL. The comments came as a surprise, though Gaunce said he tried not to pay much attention to them.
“At first I didn’t really care too, too much,” said the captain of the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls. “But he’s the coach of Team Canada, so I have to care.”
Gaunce said he’s taking Sutter’s criticism constructively when it comes to trying to hone his game now that he’s in his fourth OHL campaign.
“You never want to hear that as a player from a coach,” said Gaunce. “I only had him as a coach for 10 days or whatever it was, but he obviously has his opinion and his opinion is probably a good one based on his coaching experience and playing time.
“Having someone say that about you kind of – it doesn’t light a fire under you – but it makes me want to prove him wrong and prove people wrong who are saying that as well.”
Gaunce will get that chance when he’ll represent the OHL against Team Russia in a pair of Super Series games at the end of November. The Super Series games are a precursor to Team Canada’s final selection camp in mid-December. This year’s world junior championship will be played in Malmo, Sweden, which means Gaunce should have an advantage since he’s used to playing on the larger European-sized ice. The Yardman Arena in Belleville is the only rink in the OHL that has an Olympic ice surface.
Not that the big ice has been helping the Bulls this season. Belleville sits dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 4-2-10-1 record but are only four points out of a playoff spot. Gaunce is averaging more than a point per game with eight goals and 10 assists in 15 games, which leads the team in scoring.
“We shouldn’t be a last-place team,” said Gaunce. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out. … There are games where we know we can win, but having a young team it’s tough to get in those games where it’s close at the end. I think we’re turning it around right now.”
Recently the team acquired overage forward Cameron Brace from the Owen Sound Attack and forward Remi Elie of the London Knights, both of whom have won OHL championships. The pair will be important in adding a little mettle to a team that features seven rookies.
“It’s a lot different than in minor hockey where one guy can just go down the ice and score a goal at the end of a game without a team effort,” said Gaunce. “So I think by changing that for our young guys, showing them that you have to win by playing defence and you have to win by blocking shots – it’s different than minor hockey.”
That difference between being a top point producer in minor hockey and transitioning to being an all-round player in major junior is something Gaunce understands better than most. In 2010, his OHL draft year, Gaunce was the highest scoring player in Ontario with 55 goals and 93 assists in 86 games while playing minor midget with his hometown Markham Waxers.
Coming to the Bulls, Gaunce said he realized early he’d have to retool his game to focus more on becoming a good two-way player. And it’s that added defensive conscientiousness that has become his hallmark in the OHL.
“Everyone wants to be the 50-goal scorer and the guy who always scores the big goals,” said the second overall pick of the Bulls. “But I was honest when I looked at myself and I didn’t see that for myself. I do think I can be a scorer, but I think I’m being honest with myself. I’m not going to be a Pavel Datsyuk or a Steven Stamkos, so I found the game I’m going to play and I think I’m trying to perfect that.”
The little things often go unnoticed. Fans rarely cheer for a forward on the back check. Even though coaches preach and appreciate the defence, it never ends up on the highlights. It’s also a part of the criticism Gaunce says he hears in regards to his energy on the ice.
“I just want to play with pace,” said Gaunce, who works out in the summer with fitness guru Gary Roberts. “That’s a big thing for me. Some people think that I don’t always play a high-tempo game and I can give you my reasons why I don’t play with a high-tempo all the time or full pace all the time.”
So let’s hear it.
“You want my honest answer?”
“Some people skate around the ice and they do nothing,” explained Gaunce. “But it looks good because they’re skating hard, but they’re not doing anything or accomplishing anything. What’s the point of wasting that energy if that’s all you’re going to do?
“Fans love it when players go hard and check the boards – miss the guy – they think that’s energy. But ... that’s wasted energy. That’s just my opinion.’’
No matter what people think – whether it’s a former NHL coach, the fans or even the media – Gaunce says he’s comfortable charting his own course in the game.
“People can brand me however they want. They can brand me as a fourth-liner. It doesn’t bother me that much. I know what I need to do in the summer and I know what I need to do to be an NHLer, and that’s it.”