Elmira Jackals defenseman Wes Cunningham
has learned how to work his way up the professional ladder -- to play like those already in the NHL.
Cunningham was somewhat spoiled during his junior career, which was spent with Owen Sound, Belleville and Plymouth. During that five-year stretch, Cunningham, 22, had the opportunity to skate alongside the likes of Bobby Ryan
, James Neal
and Jared Boll
"That helped me out … seeing what they do on and off the ice," Cunningham told NHL.com. "I was kind of mimicking what they were doing, and that helped me out throughout my career, and it still does."
Cunningham's numbers progressed throughout his junior career. In his final season at that level, he had 6 goals, 43 assists and 100 penalty minutes in 55 games for the Plymouth Whalers. Not bad considering he had just 13 assists in 40 games with Belleville in 2004-05.
"I picked up a lot of good things," Cunningham said. "My coaches helped me out and let me know what I had to do get to the next level and be successful. I just carried that on and I've been working hard in practice and in games. I'm just trying to be a good pro."
So far, so good. With roughly a month to go in his rookie campaign, the Dresden, Ont., native has 9 goals and 21 assists in 58 games for the Jackals, who are in a heated battle for a North Division playoff spot.
Cunningham's hard work recently paid huge dividends -- although it was a tad rough on his body. Last Tuesday morning, the offensive defenseman practiced with the Jackals before being called into the office of coach Steve Martinson
. It was then that Cunningham received his first call to the American Hockey League.
There was just one catch -- he would be playing for the Norfolk Admirals that same night.
Accompanied by forward Paul McIlveen
, the two drove down to Bridgeport, where the Admirals were playing that night. They arrived at the arena at exactly 7 p.m., just in time for the opening faceoff.
"It was sort of a last-minute thing," said Cunningham, who had three shots on goal in Norfolk's 3-1 victory. "We had to drive five hours and we didn't have a pre-game meal. We didn't get there until 7 o'clock, which was game time. To top that off, we had an hour-and-a-half practice the morning of the game. But I think it went pretty well. I was just a little tired."
Cunningham certainly has been through a lot in his first season. He entered training camp as a member of the Florida Everblades, but a numbers game led to an Oct. 17 trade to Elmira. In exchange for Cunningham's services, the Jackals sent forward Steve McJannet south.
Playing for three OHL teams in five years meant being traded was nothing new to Cunningham. In the end, he was glad to be receiving more of an opportunity in Elmira.
"I picked up a lot of good things. My coaches helped me out and let me know what I had to do get to the next level and be successful. I just carried that on and I've been working hard in practice and in games. I'm just trying to be a good pro."
-- Wes Cunningham
"I started in Florida and I got traded right before the first game," Cunningham said. "I think it helped me to be able to play more and it gave me a chance to show what I've got. I was traded in the OHL twice, so I knew about the business. I think it helped my career because I don't think I would have played in Florida as much, due to the older guys they have. I think it was a good change for me."
Indeed it was. Instead of watching games from the press box, Cunningham finds himself in the midst of a playoff push. The Jackals currently sit in fifth place in the North, but are only four points behind the first-place Cincinnati Cyclones. Cunningham is confident the Jackals' season will last beyond April 2, when their regular season concludes.
"We've got a bunch of great guys, and some talented guys," Cunningham said. "I think if we work hard and win the next couple of games, we'll put some pressure on the other teams and hopefully make them fold."
Contact Brian Compton at email@example.com.