WILMINGTON, Mass. – Milan Lucic advocated for the Bruins to draft his former Vancouver Giants teammate Craig Cunningham at last month’s NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles.
The club’s scouts obviously also looked favorably upon the 5-foot-10, 180-pound forward because when it came time for Boston to give a name with the 97th overall pick, Cunningham became the club’s fourth-round draft pick.
Cunningham’s been trying to prove Lucic and the Bruins’ brass right this week during the team’s development camp.
But when you see Cunningham busting his tail 100 percent in every drill and every off-ice activity, keep in mind he’s not doing it for Lucic, or anyone in the Bruins’ front office or even for former NHLer and close family friend Ray Ferraro. Cunningham learned about work ethic from his mother Heather, and he wants to earn a pro contract so he can reward her efforts in raising him and his two brothers – Ryan and Mitch – after the death of their father Alvin in a car accident more than a decade ago.
“She’s kind of my inspiration, why I try to work hard every day,” said Cunningham after a double session at Ristuccia Arena today.
Ever since Alvin passed away, Heather has worked two jobs – at a hospital and a daycare she runs out of the family home. Now she has two sons attending college and a third on the cusp of playing pro hockey.
Ferraro, a fellow native of Trail, British Columbia and father to Cunningham’s close friend Landon Ferraro, believes there’s a pro career not too far off for the 19-year-old who will turn 20 in September.
“I’ve told anybody who has asked that he will play in the NHL,” Ferraro told The Province before the draft. “It might not be next year, but he will play, and he will play because he wants to. It may take him two or three years in the minors, but he’ll make it.
“Everybody who wants to play in the NHL obviously doesn’t play. You have to have the skill package. He has that, plus this incredible passion for the game.”
Cunningham knows what it’s like to work one’s way up the ladder. As a rookie with Vancouver in the Western Hockey League, he was part of the Memorial Cup-championship team but registered just five points (all assists) in 48 games. His point totals since have jumped to 25, 50 and finally 97 last winter. He tied for third in the WHL in points and second in goals with 37. That caught the eye of the Bruins and a handful of other teams after all 30 clubs passed on Cunningham in his first two years of draft eligibility.
Obviously he has grown and matured over the seasons and his role on the team has expanded. But a shift to center last season when James Wright started the campaign with the Tampa Bay Lightning also helped, as well as even more familiarity with the Giants’ system and head coach Don Hay.
It also doesn’t hurt to have an offseason workout partner like Lucic, who knows a thing or two about Bruins development camps and how to conquer them. In the summer of ’07, Lucic wowed everyone in Wilmington and rode the momentum into NHL training camp, where he earned a spot on the big club. Cunningham, who is still eligible to go back to Vancouver as an over-age player, isn’t expecting to take the same path. However, he is heeding Lucic’s advice.
“He kind of told me what to expect coming into camp,” said Cunningham. “He told me about the run test and the bench and all that stuff, so it prepared me a little bit for it.”
“He said, ‘just go in and work hard. Obviously they like you, they drafted you, so don’t be nervous.’”
Cunningham is not an imposing physical presence nor does he excel in one area of the game on the ice. But, as assistant general manager Don Sweeney noted today, Cunningham’s best assets are the intangible kind that are more visible when the puck drops. He showed those today during some battle drills and then a brief 5-on-5 scrimmage.
“I feel good. I was a little nervous my first day, kind of like my first game,” Cunningham said. “It’s kind of weird being 19 and it being my first camp here. But I thought I settled down quite a bit and started feeling a lot better today.”
Cunningham has two more days to impress the brass before he heads back to Vancouver. He’s hoping that his exit interview will be as much about where he fits into the organization as a pro as it will be about what areas he needs to improve. If he earns the right to take the next step up in his career, he’ll be able to dedicate it to the memory of his father and the nurturing of his mother and siblings.
“Even my brothers sacrificed a lot for me to be able to go to camps, power skating and stuff as a young kid,” he explained, “so hopefully one day I’ll be able to sign a contract and be able to repay them.”