Accidental hockey career starting to pan out for Greyhounds’ Bunting

By Jason Menard

Michael Bunting - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Photo: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds forward and 2014 prospect Michael Bunting returned to action this past weekend after missing time due to injury. Bunting notched three points in the two games he played in the 2013-14 season’s final weekend (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound forward Michael Bunting could be forgiven for thinking, “Why me?” back on Jan. 16th when he suffered an injury that has kept him out of the lineup for two months during his draft year. After all, he was bypassed in his first go-round with the OHL Priority Selection, and the self-professed late bloomer was just starting to open some eyes.

But Bunting’s extremely self aware. And he’s hoping to turn this negative into a positive, leading up to hearing his name called at the 2014 NHL Draft.

He was off to a good start. He had scored 39 points, including 14 goals, in 46 games to start the season with the Greyhounds. He was a +11 and had just been listed at No. 37 in Central Scouting’s midterm rankings of North American skaters.

Then, on Jan. 16th, as Bunting was turning to go back up the ice, he was hit awkwardly on his knee, a hit that would sideline him for the next two months.

“Everything was popping in my head when I got the news that I would be out for six weeks. But since then I was trying to keep thinking positively,” Bunting explained. “My trainer helped me out a lot — especially with the mental part of things. He said, ‘All you can do now is just work on it and work hard to get back.’

“There was also the possibility that I would have had to have surgery. If I had surgery, then that would have been it [for the year]. So all I really thought about was working out, working hard on it, and thinking positive thoughts about coming back.”

Surgery was not needed for the MCL strain. Instead, the prescription was for rehab and Bunting was hoping to suit up and get in live game action by the OHL season’s final weekend.

“It’s feeling pretty good — much better than it was. I feel strong and when I’m out on the ice, I feel very confident in it. I don’t feel like I have any restrictions,” he explained. “At first, when I got back on the ice, I was a little nervous, like ‘I hope it won’t go out with every little movement.’ I went around and tested every movement and now I feel like I’m back at full speed.”

He admits, though, that there are still some lingering concerns that he hopes will dissipate once he’s back in game action. The speed of practice and the game helps block out any worry he may have, Bunting explained.

“I guess I try not to think about it and put it out of my head. I have a brace on and it adds some support to it, so I just try to go out and think about my game, not ‘I hope my knee’s going to be OK.’ I just go with the flow and hope for the best,” he said. “Everything moves so quickly that you don’t have time to think too much about it. When we’re out there in practice, I’m focusing on the drill or passing the puck. I don’t even think about the knee.

“Probably the first couple of shifts I’m going to be nervous, but I expect I’ll get back to it and treat it like another game. Obviously, I got injured, but I’m going to be back at it and bouncing right around.”

The Central Scouting rankings came out just a couple of days before Bunting was injured. So he went from a high to a low in rapid succession. He added that he hopes the injury won’t affect his draft status, but that’s just something he can’t control.

“I was actually really excited, I was pretty happy. But I just want to keep all of that out of the front of my head during the season. I don’t want to focus on that,” Bunting said. “If anything’s going to happen, it’ll happen in June. Hopefully I end up there [in the rankings] but if not, then that’s OK — as long as I get drafted, I’ll be happy.”

In fact, Bunting explained the injury — and how he responds to it — may actually help him in the long run.

“There are always going to be bumps in the road, so it’s good to see how you can respond to it and move past it. It’s just a bump in the road and it shouldn’t hurt long-term,” he said. “I should be OK. If I can come back and show the scouts that I got past it, it shows the type of player that I am, and it will all work out fine.”

Bunting knows he needs to put some muscle on his 5’11”, 175-pound frame, which has made this injury a bit of a blessing in disguise. “For sure! I’ve gained 10 pounds in muscle since I’ve been injured because I wasn’t able to do leg work for a while, so all I could focus on was my upper body,” he said.

This injury is just another bump in a long and winding road that Bunting has taken to get here. He wasn’t selected in his first year of OHL Draft eligibility — a fact for which he fully accepts blame.

“When it came to my draft year, I was playing Double-A, so I really didn’t expect to be drafted at all,” he said. “I was playing Double-A and just having fun playing hockey, so I didn’t even look at the draft. I knew there wasn’t going to be a possibility.

“After the years went by, I improved in my game and moved up to AAA, then my dream changed to play in the OHL and eventually get drafted in the NHL.”

Bunting explained that he was just playing the game for the fun of it — and there were other issues that prevented him from taking the game more seriously.

“In Double-A, I was just playing to have fun. I never thought, ‘Oh, I should start training.’ I definitely had some Triple-A interest but the money was an issue — it just wasn’t an option for me,” he said. “I liked where I was, but finally when I came to Triple-A in my midget year, I knew the coach and he told me to come up. I said, ‘OK, I might as well.’ And that changed everything.”

It was at the 2012 Midget/Triple-A All-Star Game that Bunting’s perceptions about his future changed.

“My plan, at the start of the year, was just to play junior A and hopefully get a scholarship,” he said. “But after that midget Triple-A game some scouts came and watched the game. They came up to me after the game, talked to me, and told me what they thought of the game. It all of the sudden came to me that, ‘Wow, I want to go to the OHL. That seems like the best route for me.’”

Bunting is happy he found a home in the Soo. The club selected him in the ninth round (160th overall) of the 2013 draft, and the Scarborough, ON native said he’s thrilled the Greyhounds took a flyer on a kid who was just starting to take the game seriously.

“I was a late birth, I was a late bloomer. I never trained until last summer. Last year was the first year I worked on getting bigger and better. They took a chance on me being a 95 in a 96 draft,” Bunting explained. “There were a few teams that wanted me and I was really happy that Sault took me. They had shown the most interest and it’s such a great and professional program. All the coaches and scouts approached me — it just felt like the right place for me and I’m happy they drafted me.”

One of his near-term goals, to get back on the ice, has been accomplished as Bunting has returned to play in the Greyhounds' last two games. But, now that he has returned to action, Bunting's other goal is to help the Greyhounds in their quest for the OHL championship.

“I really hope that we can get a long playoff run and I really think we can win it all,” he said. “I think we have the team that can do it and really my main focus is coming back and helping my team as much as I can. That’s what I’m really looking forward to. In the summer, work on getting stronger in the upper body and core.”

And if he hears his name called at the NHL Draft, it will be the culmination of trip down a long and winding road.

“Obviously, if I get drafted, I’m going to be thrilled,” Bunting explained. “I really don’t know how I’ll react — there will probably be tears falling from my eyes after everything I’ve been through.”

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