When he returned to junior hockey from training camp with the NHL’s Florida Panthers last September, Erik Gudbranson had his sights set on two things: a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship and a MasterCard Memorial Cup title.
At the world juniors in Buffalo, N.Y., he had to settle for silver after the Canadian team suffered a third-period collapse against Russia in the final. And now with his Kingston Frontenacs facing elimination in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, Gudbranson’s other goal is in serious trouble, too.
“It’s tough,” says Gudbranson. “I’ve had a very up-and-down season, there’ve been a lot of highs and a lot of lows.”
The Frontenacs, down 3-0 in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the Oshawa Generals, face the almost insurmountable task of mounting a comeback. Not that this fazes Gudbranson, because he remains unwavering in his belief that this team – which has looked largely outmatched, undisciplined and unprepared through their first three games – can still win, starting in Game 4 on Tuesday night in Kingston.
“Absolutely, Windsor did it last year and they ended up winning the Memorial Cup,” says Gudbranson, referring to the Spitfires’ comeback against Kitchener in the OHL Western Conference final. “Hockey’s a special game that way, things swing very quickly.”
It might be easy for one to think that this is just wishful thinking or in line with the regular hockey clichés come playoff time, trying to be politically correct. But watching Gudbranson play, you can tell he believes it. Despite a 5-4 loss to Oshawa in Game 3 of the series on Sunday night, Gudbranson played like his life depended on it or even more certain, like his team’s success depended on him.
“He doesn’t give up and he’s not a quitter,” says Gudbranson’s younger brother Alex, a rookie defenceman with the Frontenacs. “That’s not how we were raised to be. If he’s out there he’s going to go hard and keep pushing until that final buzzer... if he makes the NHL next year, I know this isn’t how he wants to end his (OHL career).”
This year with the Frontenacs, Gudbranson set career highs scoring 12 goals and adding 22 assists for 34 points in 44 games along with a minus-1 rating and 105 penalty minutes. He has regularly been one of the Frontenacs’ top performers and despite knowing an early exit from the playoffs would mean signing an amateur tryout and a ticket to the American Hockey League, there’s no sign he’s going through the motions.
“I’m not thinking about it that way,” he says of his pro hockey opportunity. “I’ve had conversations with Florida about (playing in the AHL) and that would be a huge honour and I’d be excited to do it, but we’re still in the season right now. There’s a lot of work to be done. Even though we are down three games there’s still a lot of series to go.”
Seconds into Game 3, Gudbranson took a pair of hard checks from Oshawa’s Alain Berger but used his hulking 6-foot-4, 206-pound frame to easily slough them off. Later in the game he was hit from behind into the corner glass and his arm was pinned under the weight of his body. He winced and then skated to the Frontenacs bench. If Gudbranson was hurt, he definitely wasn’t showing it and was back on the ice for his next shift.
“I might have a few scratches,” says Gudbranson, who turned 19 in January. “But it is playoff hockey so you suck it up and you play.”
It seems like Gudbranson has had to face more than his fair share of adversity this season, although he’s done so with a smile on his face.
In the summer, long before returning to Kingston, the third overall pick of the Florida Panthers last June was shining in NHL camp, earning praise from general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Peter DeBoer. Even with all the acclaim dished out over his performance in the NHL’s pre-season, he failed to sign a contract with the cash-conscious Panthers because neither side could come to terms over the amount in performance bonuses he could earn.
He says the negotiation process was frustrating, but felt in the long run he had made the right decision.
“That was the toughest thing,” Gudbranson said in a September interview about turning down the contract. “At the end of the day it came down to my agents asking me what I wanted – they said I could (sign) if I wanted to – so it was really up to me. I decided that it wasn’t right at the time.
“I’m sticking with my decision.”
A tough decision to make as an 18-year-old no doubt, but Gudbranson isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill teenager. During the world junior championships, Gudbranson – the OHL’s reigning scholastic player of the year – became a favourite among the Canadian media because he was just as eloquent in French as he was in English.
"When we met him we were surprised, even when we met him at 16," says Frontenacs general manager Larry Mavety. "He handled himself very well.
"Anything we ask him to do, he does. He's committed."
Talking to the Orleans, Ont., native, there is an air of confidence and a gravitas about him that is so far beyond his age. That self-assuredness makes one want to ask for a birth certificate to see proof of his tender years.
“He’s definitely a much older person in a younger person’s body,” says Alex. “You look at him and he’s a very mature young man, on and off the ice. But I think that’s the way all of us in our family have handled ourselves.”
Alex believes that watching their younger brother Dennis’s long and successful battle against acute myeloid leukemia forced them – and sister Chantal – to grow up faster, but particularly Erik because he was the oldest of the four children.
“With my little brother’s cancer battle and stuff we had to grow up a lot faster than normal kids and I think Erik’s childhood was cut back a bit because – well, we all did. We were all cut back a bit – because we had to become men when that was happening because we had to accept certain things and the possibilities of certain things.”
In Kingston, Erik has looked after Alex, 16, often paying for meals or a trip to the movies with the boys, the kinds of frequent outings that can easily eat through a rookie’s salary of $50 per week. Having looked out for his younger siblings while his parents – Wayne and Donna – were caring for Dennis during his illness, he is also fiercely protective. Alex made sure, however, that his big brother understood he could fight his own battles as a first-year OHLer.
“When I get jumped in the corner, that’s my own problem and I’ll deal with that myself,” says Alex, who is almost a carbon copy of Erik at 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds. “I kind of wanted him to know that I would deal with stuff myself and that I could handle it. He’s protective when he needs to be, but not always when it comes to me – but Chantal and Dennis for sure.”
Gudbranson does have a playful side and a sense of humour. At last June’s NHL draft, he poked fun at missing the Los Angeles premiere of the Twilight sequel so he could instead meet with the Panthers for a pre-selection interview. He’s a huge fan of Canadian comedian Russell Peters and likes to tell the odd joke himself, though he’s not exactly the guy who is going to be pulling pranks on the team bus any time soon.
“Oh no,” says Alex solemnly. “He would never pull a practical joke. He’s a fun guy and he can be funny, but he can also be really serious.”
He can also be resolute.
When he was suspended by the Frontenacs and stripped briefly of his alternate captaincy in late January, he refused to discuss the issue, calling it an “internal matter.” The Kingston Whig-Standard reported that the incident stemmed from a “verbal tirade against a Frontenac coach” while other reports suggested Gudbranson had called out the coaching staff for their lack of commitment. Gudbranson once again would only say that the matter had been resolved within the dressing room.
Two games later he was hit with yet another suspension, this time by the OHL. His flying elbow to the head of Oshawa’s J.P. Labardo landed him an eight-game ban since it was the second infraction this season. His first suspension came in late November when he was handed a five-game ban for leveling Cosimo Fontana of the Ottawa 67’s with a check that left the forward with a concussion.
And yet, he makes no apologies for the way he plays.
“I’m not going to stop playing the way I play to accommodate someone,” says Gudbranson. “I’m trying to get to the next level and I’m going to play and do what’s necessary to get there. So if it comes down to hitting a kid hard and potentially hurting the kid, but doing it cleanly – that’s what I’m going to do because at the next level it’s going to be called upon to do.”
He believes the OHL’s rules – far more stringent than those of the NHL – aren’t necessarily compatible with preparing his style of play for the pro game.
“It has been a little frustrating,” he says. “I think when it comes down to the physicality, I’m at the stage now where I think I hit like a pro. I think some of the hits that I’ve laid on guys that look questionable in this league would be regular hits at the next level. It’s been frustrating, but there have been a lot of positives to take out of it.”
On the ice with his size and poise, Gudbranson stands out as a man among boys. And the same holds true off the ice now that he’s sporting a thick handlebar mustache and faux-hawk for the playoffs.
On this Sunday night in Oshawa, with his team finding itself in a deep rut after being defeated by the Generals again, he looks beaten and exhausted. Asked if he’s as tired as he looks after the game, he flashes a smile.
“I love it,” he says. “I’ve got all the energy in the world; it’s playoffs.
“All the energy in the world. Serious.”
And even though you don’t quite believe him, you take him at his word because if there’s one thing Erik Gudbranson knows, it’s serious.