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Gudbranson has more than Draft to celebrate

by Adam Kimelman
Erik Gudbranson certainly has June 25 circled on his calendar, but as important as the first day of the 2010 Entry Draft is, it won't be the high point of his summer. Not even close.

No, for Erik and his family, their big day this summer is Aug. 18. That's the day Erik's youngest brother, Dennis, will celebrate being cancer-free for five years.

"In August it will be considered five years in remission, which means he's a complete cure," Erik, a defenseman with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs, told "As ridiculous as it sounds, that's probably the biggest day of my year and I'm really looking forward to that."

No, putting family first isn't ridiculous at all. In fact, it's a trait that runs through the Gudbranson household, just like hockey talent does. And Erik has both in spades. At a shade under 6-foot-4 and a well-developed 195 pounds, Gudbranson had 2 goals, 23 points and a plus-11 rating in 41 games this season.

He also had 68 penalty minutes, a number that could have been higher were it not for even the toughest players in the OHL avoiding him.

"In my opinion, Gudbranson is another Chris Pronger-type," Chris Edwards, NHL Central Scouting's OHL scout, told "What he brings that (Pronger) really didn't do much of, though, is he'll fight. He is some kind of tough. Chris Pronger is mean and will hit you; Gudbranson will hit you and fight you."

His strong play came despite missing time early with a sprained knee ligament and later mononucleosis, which kept him out of January's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Still, he was No. 6 (second among defensemen) on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings, and could move up when the final rankings are revealed Wednesday. He'll also have a chance to make an impression playing for Canada at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Belarus later this month. He had 4 points and a plus-5 rating in six games at last year's tournament.

"Gudbranson to me is a guaranteed long-term NHLer," Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire told

"You get a guy as big as he is and skates as well as he does, handles and moves the puck as well as he does, there's not much not to like," added Edwards. "He has real high-end puck-moving ability, he sees the ice very well."

As tough as Erik is, however, he admits he's nowhere near as strong as Dennis, now 12. Dennis Gudbranson was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on April 22, 2004.

"He's battled through cancer, and had to go through the whole radiation, chemotherapy, all the drugs," said Erik. "He's definitely a really tough kid and someone you have to look up to."

Now a healthy, hockey-playing 12-year-old, Dennis has beaten cancer twice. An intensive six-month course of chemotherapy appeared to beat the disease, but a year later the cancer returned, and doctors said Dennis' only chance at survival was a bone-marrow transplant, which he received Aug. 18, 2005. With no one in the family testing as a match for Dennis, an amazing 10-of-10 match was found June 30, 2005, from a national Canadian donor registry list -- a 1-in-40,000 chance, said mom Donna Gudbranson.

"We won the lottery that day," she told

With parents Wayne and Donna devoting so much of their time to Dennis' care, Erik played a large role in helping raise his other younger siblings, brother Alex and sister Chantel.

"Unlike my other little siblings I knew something was wrong," Erik said. "I knew it was a big deal seeing him in that state. My parents tried to hide it from me somewhat, but I was old enough and mature enough to understand the severity of the situation. I ended up taking in my other siblings, Alex and Chantel, a lot more, showing them the way, making sure they didn't think of it so much. When my parents were always at the hospital, I looked over them a lot."

"Erik always has been a very mature young man," Donna said, "and he felt a responsibility toward the other two, and tried to keep everybody positive and entertained. We tried to use laughter and humor to make a positive environment as part of our survival. Erik was instrumental in keeping everybody going and positive."

With all the family drama, Erik turned to the ice to find some peace.

"When my brother was sick, I made hockey my oasis," he said. "I made hockey my place where I could strap on the skates, get on the ice and just not think about what's going on. When I'm on the ice I'm just thinking hockey."

The focus and maturity in his game is part of what makes him such a strong NHL prospect. Kingston coach Doug Gilmour certainly noticed. Not long after Gilmour took over as coach in November 2008, he named a 16-year-old Gudbranson captain. It was only for five games, but it spoke volumes about the kind of player and person Gudbranson is.

"He (Gilmour) said I don't know you guys too well, so for the first month we're going to rotate five-game captains," said Gudbranson. "I was fortunate enough to be picked first. It came as a surprise, but I believed that I worked for it and felt ready to take on the challenge. I've always been a leader in the room. I consider myself a leader. I like to show the way for guys. Even if I was one of the younger guys, I like to show them the way anyway. I just go out there, I work hard. It's more your actions, it's not what you say. I just show them the way."

This season, he showed the Frontenacs the way from last place in the OHL Eastern Conference to fourth, and he had a goal and 2 assists in a seven-game first-round series loss to the Brampton Battalion.

Gudbranson credits Gilmour's leadership for his own development as well as the team's.

"He's an experienced guy, an NHL legend," said Gudbranson. "Having him lay down his wisdom, show me the way, give me little tricks, stuff like that. He knows how to make it as a player. He's shown me little things that have helped a lot. … He's been there, he's done that, and that experience is definitely something you have to take seriously."

While Gilmour has made an impression on Erik, the foundation for the player and person he is comes from watching how his parents weathered the storm of Dennis' illness. Donna, who now works for the University of Ottawa's department of family medicine and department of special projects, devoted most of her time to staying with Dennis in the hospital during his illness. Wayne, president and CEO of the Branham Group, an international technology consulting company based in Ottawa, helped make sure three active children got to every school and sports function, and were well-supported at home.

"He travels a lot but he's very committed to our hockey, he's very committed to his kids," Erik said of his father. "He's flown in from Europe, slept three hours and come to see me play in Kingston (a two-hour drive each way), which is definitely something special. Having parents that are that committed, it's rubbed off on me. It shown me you have to be committed if you want something. My mother … she's a very smart woman, easy to look up to."

Donna's latest project is planning a family trip in August to Newfoundland, to meet the woman whose bone marrow saved Dennis' life.

Those around Erik have seen that hard work get him to the point where his name will be called early in the first round of the draft.

"He's earned this," said Donna. "He's worked really, really hard. He's set his dreams and goals really high and we did everything we could to help him achieve them."

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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