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Competitor

Posted: March 15, 2017 at 9:18 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Thirteen days ago, Hunter Gunski, a long, rangy defenceman with the Wellington Dukes, fell to the ice after being hit in the face by the puck. His jaw shattered. Hunter spent the night in the hospital. His team went home with a win. Hunter was discharged from hospital and travelled home to Goffstown, New Hampshire for surgery to repair his jaw and to recover.

The 20-year-old has earned a scholarship to play and study at Utica College next fall. His days in a Wellington Dukes uniform were over in a sudden and painful way.

Or so it seemed. With his team facing elimination on Sunday night, Gunski was back in Wellington and in the lineup for the Dukes. His jaw is now wired closed to allow it to heal. Yet, the fearless young man was taking regular shifts in a game whose outcome both teams fought over ferociously.

“He was adamant about getting back to Wellington,” said his coach and Dukes general manager Marty Abrams. “He has shown tremendous courage and desire in trying to help his team in this playoff series.”

The Dukes won game six—tying the series at three games apiece and forcing a game seven. The deciding game was to be played last night after The Times went to press (though a snowstorm was threatening).

It seems, in some ways, an odd decision for the young defenceman. As a parent, I worry in the best of circumstances, about a 20-yearold’s decision-making ability. When he’s hopped up on painkillers, worry devolves into serious second guessing.

Hunter isn’t the highest profile player on the Dukes—not even among the defence corps. Nor has he played his entire junior career here—only donning the red and gold jersey last August. What he is, is a solid and dependable rearguard with the reach and ability to poke the puck loose from the shifty forwards working to get around him. He is, however, mostly admired by Dukes fans for his willingness to use his body to block shots.

In one shift in January against Markham, Gunski dropped three times to block incoming shots from the point. When he limped off the ice—the penalty extinguished—the Wellington crowd roared its approval. Or was it appreciation? Or recognition of bravery and commitment? Or recklessness?

What is it that inspires us to admire and be repulsed simultaneously by the willingness of young men to subject themselves to such punishment game after game?

In a way, these young men and their games become proxies for our lives—our struggles, our challenges, our ambitions. They remind us that life is to be engaged—to be participated in, rather than simply observed. That perhaps we’ve been on the sidelines too long. Too comfortable

It was something else, however, to see Hunter Gunski return to the ice on Sunday night in Wellington. Something both admirable and foolishly unnecessary.

But I think there is another reason Hunter’s fearlessness is likely bound for Dukes legend.

One of the risks of recruiting players in the last year of junior hockey eligibility is that they move on before the season ends, either mentally or emotionally, and sometimes physically. It is understandable, indeed natural, that some want to get a head start on to the next chapter of their lives. They’ve accomplished every personal goal set for themselves. For some there is nothing left to be gained in Wellington or whatever hockey town in which they are billeted.

So it is all the more remarkable that Hunter— just days after a devastating injury—would be so driven as to leave home again, to head north to rejoin his teammates for what might have been the final game of the season for the Dukes.

It wasn’t. It was a terrific game. A slow start. A thrilling build up. A penalty shot. An overtime goal. Scored by sheer will and determination. The spectacle featured a Dukes team that simply decided in the final 30 minutes they wanted this victory— that they would do whatever was required to subdue and overwhelm their opponents. They could rest and recover another day.

It was the most fun, and the most thrilling finish in Wellington that fans have seen in a long time.

This spectacle is on display weekly from August to March—sometimes later—in Wellington. It is teeming with wonderful and awe-inspiring stories. Brayden Stortz. Nic Mucci. Mitchell Martan. Colin Doyle. Carter Allan. Each has his own inspiring story of the 2016/17 season in Wellington.

Since making it to the national championships twice in the past decade and a bit, Wellington fans have become accustomed to winning. Conditioned to success. Distracted by other diversions. Perhaps we’ve taken remarkable Dukes teams for granted.

The Cornwall Royals won back to back Memorial Cup Championships in the early ’80s. Twelve years later they were gone from the city—sold to Newmarket. Never to return. Past success, as demonstrated in Cornwall, is not an indicator of durability.

Much of Wellington’s story has been tied to hockey and to the Dukes. This team reveals rich and amazing stories each and every game night. It is entertainment that remains within reach of families and youngsters. Much of the credit goes to a cast of volunteers who make this team work and the experience memorable each and every week. So many remarkable stories.

By the time, you read this, the Dukes’ fate will have been decided. If they are fortunate to continue playing in March—I urge you to come out and see this team compete. Heart-thumping action. Astonishing skill. And fearless determination.

Hunter Gunski has endured much to play in Wellington. You should see this.

rick@wellingtontimes.ca