It took a couple of days for Vancouver Canucks’ 2012 first-round draft pick Brendan Gaunce to get over the surreal experience of suiting up with guys that he had previously only seen as pixels or images on a TV screen. But it’s all part of the growing process for the 19-year-old centre and will help in his continued development as one of the OHL’s top players.
“It’s kind of crazy to see the guys that you watched on TV for so long and now you get to skate with them. After a while you just get used to it — it’s still hockey after all. You’ve been around the rink for a long time, so you just get used to it,” Gaunce said. “After the first couple of days, since you’re with them every day, you grow accustomed to it and their habits and what they do.
“You start to see them as hockey players and not as people you see on TV or even play as a video game. You see them as a teammate and another person that you played with.”
Which brings up the question, have you ever played as yourself in a video game?
“I, heh, I don’t usually play as Belleville,” he said, adding — with a sheepish grin, “But, yeah, I have…”
And was that video game version of Gaunce an accurate representation of his abilities? “Sure, yeah,” he said – not at all convincingly.
But with the experience he gained over the summer, along with another year captaining the OHL’s Belleville Bulls, Gaunce’s EA Sports’ player ratings should improve dramatically.
“It was my first time going through it and it was a lot different. It kind of opens your eyes as to how hard guys work and they treat it as a job — it’s not just something that you do and you’re lucky to do it,” he said. “I have to work on everything. You have to improve your tempo — that’s obviously a big thing in the NHL because the game’s played at such a high pace.”
Gaunce was selected in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft by the Canucks, going 26th overall. It wasn’t his first experience going in the first round, as he was the second-overall selection in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection, selected behind only Montreal Canadiens’ forward (and former Sarnia Sting player) Alex Galchenyuk.
Gaunce is entering his fourth season in the OHL. In his first three years, he’s accounted for 170 points in 199 games. The last two season’s he’s been a point-per-game player — exactly — with totals of 68 and 60 in an equal number of games during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, respectively. Since returning from the Canucks' NHL camp, he’s continued that pace, with 10 points in 10 games, including seven assists.
In his three first years in the OHL, the Bulls have been a playoff squad, culminating last year in a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a trip to the conference’s finals. This year, however, the Bulls, will be in tight to make the post-season, starting the 2013-14 campaign with a 2-8-1-1 record in eight games. Belleville’s head coach and general manager George Burnett said that the improvements he’s seen in Gaunce since returning from Canucks’ camp are going to be integral to any success the club has.
“Last year, as a young captain, he probably didn’t have to lead nearly as much,” Burnett said. “This year he needs to lead because we’re so youthful at so many positions, with young kids in our lineup. Learning how to do that, how to set the right example, how to communicate, and when to talk, when not to.
“We need him to just go out and be Brendan — we’re not asking him to do anything differently, just play at a high pace. He’s a tremendous player without the puck; I think he’s a guy that’s looking to try to dominate more offensively this year and continue to develop his confidence in that area of the game. Whether he’s on the wing or in the middle, we need him to be his best.”
Burnett said that Gaunce has handled the disappointment of not sticking with his NHL club well so far.
“He’s shown lots of growth and maturity,” Burnett said. “There’s always disappointment when you get sent back and there was maybe some understanding, with all the young kids, that there might have been an opportunity for them to stay with the big club.
“It’s only human nature that you’re going to be disappointed when you come back.”
For his part, Gaunce is happy to embrace an increased leadership role in his second year as the team’s captain.
“I think I just have to be myself and try to lend a helping hand to the younger guys,” he said. “It’s a different team from last year and we’ve obviously gotten off to a bit of a slow start. But it’s not like we’re getting blown out of games — they’re all 4-3, 4-4 games going into overtime and we don’t seem to be able to get that extra point.
“They’re not games that you’re down after and thinking, ‘We’re never going to win in this place,’ or ‘We’re never going to win again.’ You have to take everything with a grain of salt and we obviously don’t have the record we want, but we can get there pretty quick.”
Burnett said that there are advantages to a player like Gaunce returning to the OHL, where he’ll play in all situations and get plenty of minutes as opposed to seeing spot duty in the pros.
“I think it’s having a chance to dominate. You can get fourth-line minutes at the pro level or you can come back here, play a lot of minutes,” Burnett explained. “If he plays well he knows he’ll have an opportunity to be considered for Team Canada at Christmastime.
“The challenge right now is for him to help us not be the only guy, but to help lead a bunch of young, inexperienced kids in how to prepare, how to come to the rink, how to come to the [Budweiser] Gardens, for example, and not be caught looking around at all the banners and looking up in the stands at all the people.”
Burnett added that Gaunce is going to be an important part of showing the young Bulls how to be an OHL player, and that the results should pay off in team success.
“He’s going to have to show them how to make sure that you’re focused on good habits in practice,” he said. “Those day-to-day habits that are going to allow this team to progress from where we’ve had a rough start to where we can start seeing some positive things happen each and every day.”
In Vancouver, Gaunce had the opportunity to experience the coaching style of John Tortorella.
“He’s an awesome coach. He’s an honest coach and that’s what you want as a player,” Gaunce said. “You don’t want someone that’s going to beat around the bush. You want someone that’s going to tell you straight up what’s going on and he did that. It’s a good thing to see, as a young guy, that a coach can be as fair with a 35-year-old player and a guy that’s 19 years old.”
Gaunce also has an older brother who has enjoyed a cup of coffee at the NHL level. Drafted in 2008 by the Colorado Avalanche, Cameron Gaunce is now in the Dallas Stars’ organization, playing in the AHL for the Texas Stars. Despite the shared career goals, Brendan said he and his brother don’t often talk shop.
“Not really, actually. We have different experiences of how we went through stuff, so you can talk to him about so many thing,” he said. “ But, really, some of the times when you talk to your brother you don’t want to talk about the things you’re around every day. We do sometimes, but not often.”
And one other goal that Gaunce has? Making the most of his final shot at wearing the red-and-white Team Canada jersey.
“For sure. It’s my last year of eligibility and it’s always something that you want to do as a 19-year-old,” he said. “I’m just going to try to work everyday to get to that.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard