Brendan Gaunce is a naturally talented athlete. The 17-year-old from Markham, Ontario is currently leading the Belleville Bulls in scoring with 44 points in 43 games, though he proclaims to have been an all-sport athlete in school, playing rugby, football, and even running track.
He’s certainly not hesitant to take up a challenge. Looking at the 6’2, 212lb power forward, no one would guess he also tried his hand at acting, performing in a school production of the popular musical Hairspray, just a year before his OHL draft year.
He doesn’t like to dwell too much upon his short-lived acting career.
"I tried my hand in acting but [it] didn’t work out too well so I stuck with sports," laughs the second-year Bull.
Luckily for Gaunce, it appears he has a future in hockey. He was recently ranked as the 11th best North-American skater by Central Scouting as well as the seventh best skater by International Scouting Services, and it should be no surprise given his background.
His older brother, Cameron, is a defenseman in the Colorado Avalanche organization; but not only that, Cameron played minor hockey for the Markham Waxers, where his teammates included Steven Stamkos (TB), Cody Hodgson (VAN), and Michael Del Zotto (NYR). The younger Gaunce is quick to acknowledge how much he learned from watching his older brother and his talented teammates. However, it wasn’t their skill that he admired most.
"They showed that hockey didn’t come easy and all the opportunities they got didn’t come easy," he says. "And hockey’s just like life: it’s not [that] just because you’re good you’re going to get something – you have to work for it."
Currently leading the offensive charge behind a turnaround in Belleville (they won just 21 games last year as opposed to 22 so far this season), Gaunce is a multidimensional talent who has been developing into a premier power forward. He can score just as easy as he can set up goals, and his physical play has been becoming more and more noticeable as he gets older and stronger.
He isn’t completely rising through this year’s draft ranks out of nowhere, however; in fact, he was selected by second overall by Belleville in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection, and considering he was playing on a rebuilding team, had quite a successful rookie season, registering 36 points in 65 games.
Cool and collected, he doesn’t recall feeling much pressure to prove himself worthy of the second overall selection in his rookie year.
"I chose hockey as my career and I came into last year knowing that it was my job, and with every job comes responsibility, and I think I just came into last year knowing that I had the skill and the size to play in the league," he says.
"I was happy with how I played last year and how I’ve transitioned into this year."
His transition into the 2011-12 season involved a lengthy, but exciting summer. He took part in the NHL Research and Development Camp for the top 2012 draft-eligible prospects in August, but the highlight of his summer came just a couple weeks earlier when he led team Canada to a gold medal at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic. He had a goal and an assist in the gold-medal game against Sweden, and already, the level-headed Gaunce is putting the tournament into perspective.
"I don’t think during the tournament I noticed how lucky I was just because I was used to playing with those guys in summer tournaments, but when you look back on it, it definitely was an experience I’ll never forget."
The biggest thing he has taken away from the experience is the attitude and work ethic that it requires to represent his country. Gaunce, clearly, is a young man that knows nothing will be handed to him.
"Line one to line four worked and competed every practice and game, and to be on those teams you have to work your hardest all the time and I think that’s what separates the guys that make those teams from the guys that don’t," he says, agreeing that the experience will certainly help his bid to represent team Canada at the World Juniors within the next two years.
In fact, when asked what he has improved upon most over the past year, Gaunce is quick to mention his work ethic. He also notes that his shot has improved quite a bit, as has his play in the defensive zone, evidenced by a drastic turnaround in plus/minus rating this season; through 43 games, he is a plus-five, whereas last year he finished a miunus-31, though, to be fair, the Bulls were much weaker defensively as a whole last season.
There’s also been another change in his game: he’s been fighting. He is realizing he is one of the bigger players on the ice, and while he knows it isn’t his job to do the on-ice policing, he is more than willing to drop the gloves to stand up for a teammate.
"I don’t see myself as a fighter but you need to stick up for your teammates. Each time [I fought] was for a reason," says Gaunce, who has accumulated three fighting majors this season.
It is plain to see that Gaunce is becoming closer and closer to a complete player by the day, and it’s something that he prides himself on. It’s also the reason why he is likely to be a first-round selection this June. And though he grew up a Leaf fan and admits that playing for the Leafs – or any team near Ontario – would be a dream come true, he has no set goals for the upcoming draft.
"Whatever happens happens," he says. "If I go in the first round or the second round it doesn’t matter as long as I work hard this summer. I’ll still have the same opportunity the next year going into [camp]."
Given his combination of talent and work ethic, Gaunce is likely to be one of the top forwards in the OHL over the next year or two, and in all likelihood, will experience pro hockey, but the Markham native isn’t looking too far ahead, nor is he worrying too much about draft rankings and speculation.
"I don’t think you can’t not notice [the draft talk] just because there’s so much stuff on it, so much press on it, but hockey’s just a game, and if it works out for me, it works out for me," he says.
"I have to take this year in stride because it might be one of the better years of my life."