by Lisa McRitchie on 02/24/12 at 05:00 AM ET
It’s a dream come true for players to be drafted into the NHL, but as we all know simply being drafted does not guarantee any kind of professional career or success. Unless you are an early first round pick, you could be years away from getting any kind of a chance at a game in the big show. And so, players still continue to work, play and dream of the day when they can have their chance.
For 2010 fifth round pick Tyler Bunz his lifelong dream of a career in the NHL may be inching closer, but is still likely years away. Instead of disheartening the young goaltender it has driven Bunz to play the best hockey of his life. This season, Bunz has set a new record for winningest goaltender in Medicine Hat Tigers’ history and is currently the WHL’s winningest goaltender with a record of 34-14-2-2. Neither have been easy accomplishments, and on their own would be impressive. Together, they are amazing.
Tyler Bunz has been so much more than just one of the reasons the Tigers have been winning game in game out, he is also an ingenious member of the Medicine Hat of the community. In an effort to raise money for MS in honour of a long time Tiger’s billet Sue Larock, Bunz organized a Tigers Skills Competition Thursday February 23rd. As luck would have it, Team Bunz beat Team Etem 17-13 but as the cliché goes, the real winners were the fans. But of course, the players had more than a little fun with the event, even holding a fantasy draft to determine teams.
Last week, Bunz suffered an upper body injury during practice and has now missed four games including a disappointing 5-3 loss to the Calgary Hitmen. The timing was certainly not good, but a similar situation happened last year causing Bunz to miss playoff games.
Although Bunz has missed games due to injury, he was hopeful he could be on the ice for his team’s skills competition because “It’s tough watching from the stands, but my body comes first. I’ve got to be a lot healthier go back out there and compete.” In the end, Bunz only tweeted updates as the competition went on.
Playing in the Skills competition would have been incredible for Bunz, but his focus is getting back into the lineup for games. “It’s always difficult; it’s been difficult the last four days even when we’re winning. It’s obviously hard to watch when you can’t be a part of it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and I’ve got to make sure that my injury does heal before I get back out there.
“I don’t want to make it worse. We’ve got playoffs coming up and I don’t want to do what I did last year and rush it and be injured again, or have it prolonged. I’ll take it day by day, but I am feeling a lot better and I’m hoping that tomorrow is that day that I get back on the ice.”
Last season, Bunz suffered a concussion that kept him out of the lineup and although Bunz certainly wanted to get back into the game as soon as possible, it’s difficult to fault him especially with a head injury. We are learning more and more about concussions, but no one has all of the answers or solutions yet.
The biggest accomplishment of Bunz’s season to this point has to be setting an all new Tigers record for wins. And no one knows more than Bunz that how great of an accomplishment that is. “It’s pretty special. You can’t only say for me, but for other teams that I’ve played for being the teammates that I’ve had, the coaching staff I’ve had, up to this point they’ve all had the trust in me to go out there and win a game for them.
“Even when I was 17, for the management to make me a starter just shows the confidence they have in me. It took me a while to get started but the past couple of years have been the best years of my life; playing here and going out and competing with guys day in and day out.
“My job is to go out there and give them a chance and hopefully they can score enough goals to win games. I’ve done that more times than not and for me to be the winningest goaltender in Medicine Hat Tiger’s history… it’s a pretty special feeling knowing that the goaltending that’s come through this franchise. It’s had some popular names with Chris Osgood, Kelly Hrudey and Matt Keetley who was holding the record before me. It’s been a lot of fun playing here; it’s been a lot of fun winning games.”
Bunz doesn’t only lead the WHL for goaltender wins, but also assists. With his five assists, Bunz actually has more points than some skaters on his team. “Leading the dub huh?” Bunz exclaimed when asked about the standings. “Wow. I didn’t know that.
“I like to play the puck, I’ve worked on it in practice for years. JF [Martel] does a lot of work on that. I think that they are pretty greasy assists, I think that I get the second assist… Getting points as a goalie is pretty funny.” Funny or not, goaltenders have been known to score goals if not assists now and then, but none more than Martin Brodeur who has two goals and 40 assists in his NHL career.
Another accomplishment Bunz has had in his years with the Tigers was taking the Scholastic Player of the Year not once, but twice. “School’s always been something that I enjoyed growing up” Bunz explains. “My family always harps on that and my mom works for the school board and my brother’s pretty smart. He’s actually an electrical engineer and he’s always been a guy that I’ve looked up to.
“Just work hard on and off the ice is just something that I like to live by. No matter if its school, hockey or relationships with people, you always want to be at your best. You put effort into it and whatever you put into it, you get out. It’s kind of been something that I’ve lived with my whole life.”
Tigers’ head coach Shaun Clouston of course has a glowing review of Bunz’s season and career with the Tigers, “It’s been outstanding, he’s had a great career. To me, he’s shown improvement stage by stage by stage. He has gotten better physically; quicker and stronger. He’s gotten better structurally.I think that the biggest thing has just been confidence. He’s done a great job, really solid mentally.”
Clouston also commented on Bunz’s outgoing personality that I’ve commented on time and time again saying “He’s a unique guy. Goaltender, it’s a tough position. Often times they keep to themselves and worry about themselves and that’s understandable, but Tyler is one of our best leaders.
“He’s been with us for a long time and he knows what we’re all about. You know if something needs to be said in the room whether it’s during a video session or after a game, he’ll speak up. The guys respect him a lot and he gives our guys a lot of confidence.”
To Tigers’ goaltending coach J.F. Martel this has also been a great season for Bunz. “It’s been very good, I have no complaints” said Martel. “He’s been one of our best players by far. I think that he’s been very consistent.”
Martel is also pleased with Bunz’s assist totals, and doesn’t seem surprised that he has five to match his total from last season as well. “He’s a very good puck handler. He has a very complete game from communicating with his d-man to playing the puck he can do everything just overall a great leader on and off of the ice I’d say.”
Bunz is still developing and working on his game. This season especially, his rebound control has shown improvement. Martel attributes this to Bunz working to simplify his game. “Sometimes when you make the goalie a little bit more compact, when you keep his game a little more simple the rebounds stay in the body and the pucks go in the corner. It’s definitely something that we’ve been working on since day one.” From the casual eye, it’s been working.
In terms of continued improvements, Martel does offer that “If [Bunz] still wants to be a very good pro, he’s got to show a little bit more control on his game. He’s a very athletic goalie and I think that sometimes he relies a little bit too much on that but I think overall, just keep simplifying his game will be the key thing for him at the pro level if he wants to be a successful pro.”
Successful pro was mentioned several times because Bunz is one of the most mature and driven WHL players there are, and from all accounts, he always has been. “Since day one he had that figured out” Martel explains. “You don’t see many kids that when they come in at 15, they know where they want to do and they know what they’re going to do to get there. Right there, that set him apart from the other guys that have been coming through through the years. Definitely he had a plan and he knew what he was going to do to get there.”
For next season, Bunz is hoping to take his game to the pro level. “I’m hoping so, whether it be to go to the coast like Olivier [Roy] did or going straight to the AHL one of the two. Obviously the NHL is the dream but it’s kind of a farfetched thing at this point.
“I’m hoping that I do move on but there’s nothing bad about coming back to the WHL and finishing your career off with the team that you started with, the team that you’ve built a really good relationship with everyone in the organization. If it does come to that, where I come back I’ll be just as happy. It’s been a great four years and if I do make it five so be it, I’ll come back here and work just as hard as if I went to the pro level.”
But it’s not just Bunz that feels he could make the move to the next level, Martel also feels that Bunz is ready. “You can always improve yourself at our league[the WHL], it’s a good league but for two years he’s been among the top five in the league. You would think that by now he’s ready to take the next step. I think he’s ready for sure yet.”
The Oilers have not yet signed Bunz to an entry level contract, but those deals are always signed in April and May after the team begins to address other needs and issues. As much as Bunz may be slightly disappointed if he is to spend another year in the WHL, he really means it when he says that he would be happy to play another year with the Tigers. Bunz sees his dream within his sights, but is mature enough to realise that there are a few more years of work to be done and he will use those years as best he can, just as he has seen his friend and fellow Oilers’ prospect Olivier Roy do the same.
Although Tiger’s head coach Clouston may not be a goalie coach, he also sees the promise in young Bunz “I think he’s got the right mindset and work ethic to be a great goaltender in the national hockey league.”
Tyler Bunz and the Medicine Hat Tigers are in the final stretch of the regular season and are preparing as best they can for a long playoff run. Currently, the team is in the middle of the pack and may be in for a difficult first round against a closely matched team. As with any league and any team come playoff time however, anything is possible.
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Lisa McRitchie is a fairly new writer, online at least, but makes up for inexperience with passion for the game of hockey and memories of Mrs. Leskiw’s English AP class; who knew they would pay off one day.
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