ALLEN, TX – I have done many player profiles and interviews over the last six years and the most enjoyable part for me is to get to know each player’s story in a way you don’t understand until you have a chance to sit down and talk with them in depth. I used to have a very structured set of questions, and the interview was strictly question and answer. What I have learned over the years is to ask fewer questions and just let the player tell their story in their own words. Such was the case when I sat down with Allen defenseman Mike Gunn recently.
I have never come away from an interview more impressed with a personal story. Mike was open, honest and talked about the good times and bad but what came through was his absolute passion for playing hockey and how proud and fortunate he feels to be able to come to the rink every day and make a living playing the sport he loves. His positive attitude oozes out him when he tells his story and you hear that from his teammates who talk about how good he is in the locker room. My only hope is the feeling I got from interviewing Mike comes across in his story because it is compelling.
Mike was born and raised in Livonia, Michigan which is a suburb northwest of Detroit. As he describes his childhood and neighborhood, “I grew up and had the best childhood ever in Livonia. It was a massive neighborhood and I had tons of friends with tons of street hockey games. My mom and dad were the definition of perfect hockey parents. They never let me miss a practice, they would take off work to take me to tournaments, my dad got a second job to pay for my hockey, they did everything so I could play hockey. My mom (Sue) works at the school with special needs children and my dad (Don) works at the Livonia Transmission Plant,” Gunn said. “I have a very beautiful sister named Kelly who is two years younger and she stole every book smart gene in the family. She is an absolute genius and impresses the hell out of me all of the time. She is studying to be a Physicians’ Assistant.”
Mike started playing hockey when he was around three. His dad never played organized hockey, just pond hockey but his uncle (mom’s brother) was a hockey player and influenced his mom to put Mike in hockey.
Mike recalls the first time his mom took him skating, “My mom thought she had ruined my chance of liking to skate because the very first time she took me to a class she just brought me in jeans. The Zamboni had just finished cleaning the ice so the ice was still wet. I took two steps onto the ice and fell and I am sitting in a puddle of water and I start crying. My grandfather was there and gave my mom grief for ruining the experience as I sat in the water with wet jeans and no gloves crying.” The fact is Mike loved hockey right from the beginning and it is all he ever wanted to do.
One of Mike’s earliest memories from organized hockey was when he was five or six and played for a team called the Villanova Villians. “There are four or five kids from that team that I am still close with today. My neighborhood was packed with kids and every one of them had a hockey stick and we would play street hockey all of the time.”
How did Mike become a left shot defenseman? My dad was a left shot and I am sure when he showed me how to hold a stick it was just like he held the stick. As for playing defense, it is all I ever remember playing and to be honest, I was literally the slowest kid when I was younger. I think the coaches thought because I was dead last on every drill let’s put him on defense. I could skate backward almost as fast as I could go forward.
Mike progressed through house leagues to AA to AAA hockey. Mike played for a team called Compuware from his first year in Squirts (9) until he was 15. Mike played his junior hockey in the NAHL for a couple of years and in the USHL for a couple of years before getting a scholarship to play college hockey at Northeastern University. He suffered many setbacks along the way. From his first year in juniors (2008) through his sophomore year in college (2013) Mike underwent seven knee surgeries and a lung surgery.
I asked Mike if he ever thought of quitting with all of the injuries. In his endearing open and honest answer he speaks to his love and passion for hockey, “I think in my last year in juniors when I was out for months with another knee surgery some doubts crept in but I said to myself there is nothing else I like to do, it is the funnest thing to do and it was all I knew how to do. It is not that I wasn’t good at school but I just hated school. All my buddies still played and hanging out with my buddies in the summer was all about skating and training.”
After junior hockey, Mike moved on to college at Northeastern University where he played for three years. Mike describes it as the best college experience somebody could ask for. He actually had committed to Michigan State before he started having knee injuries but they withdrew the offer after a new coaching staff arrived and the knee problems kept reoccurring. Here is how Mike described that time, “Michigan and Michigan State hockey is all I knew growing up. What I really wanted to do was go to Canada and play major junior hockey. That is what everyone by me did and I wanted to go the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) so bad but the knee surgeries ended up setting me back,” Gunn said. “So after I was de-committed by Michigan State in my last year in juniors I went to a USHL showcase and did well. I had several colleges interested in me and after making some visits decided to attend Northeastern as I fell in love with that place. I don’t know why Northeastern University isn’t the number one place kids want to play college hockey. It is right in the heart of Boston and it was so much fun. I have nothing but great things to say about that school. The coaching staff is unbelievable and the people they bring in are unreal. It is a school that makes you grow up more because it is not the kind of environment with ten hockey players living in one house type of thing. The coaching staff wants you to be the best hockey player but I know their thing is they want the best humans leaving the program. Even if you didn’t want to mature, you would mature in that program and that happened to me.”
Mike’s goal as soon as he got to college was to turn pro and he had teams interested right from his freshman year. He never got a contract offer after his freshman year because he had another knee surgery, so he had to come back to school another year. The same thing happened after his sophomore season. It got to a point with all of the knee surgeries Mike said to himself he was going to prove he could overcome all of the adversity of dealing with injuries. Going into his junior season at Northeastern, Mike decided that he was there to play hockey and turn professional and an education was secondary. He acknowledges it may not have been the best decision but it was the right decision for him.
“I would wake up at 4:30 am and go to the rink and the rink guy would let me in. I would work out until 6:30 am and then I would hop on the ice with an alumni beer league skate at 7:00 am. I would finish at the rink, get something to eat and go back to my dorm room and sleep for a couple of hours. I would then go to our official practice followed by the team workout. I would work out after practice for two hours and then on top of that I had physical therapy and rehab for my knee. I would go to sleep and wake up the next day and do the same thing,” Gunn recalled. “The reason I got away with not going to class is I told them every year I was leaving because I was hockey, hockey, hockey. So the deal I had was as long as I passed they would back off my study hall hours and nobody would be down my back. As it turned out the coach was taking a recruit around and stopped by a class I was enrolled in and called me to see why I wasn’t in class. This was in February and the coach called me into his office and to make a long story short I had 48 hours to move because technically I was no longer a student.”
All Mike ever wanted to do is play hockey and he was out of school and his advisor was trying to find him a job in the ECHL but nothing was happening. Mike got a call from an SPHL coach who was a Northeastern graduate and told him to come and play for him which Mike did against his advisor’s advice because he though that would hurt Mike’s chances of getting an ECHL contract the following season.
That summer Mike was back home in Michigan with no options for playing pro hockey in 2015-16. His advisor was not talking to him because he opted to play in the SPHL, he didn’t have the best relationship with his college coaches because they were pissed at him for leaving and no pro teams were contacting him. He was still training hard but was not sure what to do next. As Mike told me; “I am thinking to myself how does a random person try and turn pro. So I decided to sign up for the Toledo Walleye free agent camp where you pay your own way along with something like 200 other players. There were guys at that camp that literally looked like they got stuff from a garage sale and tried to skate for the first time. The deal was Toledo would take five players from this camp to their main training camp and they ended up taking only two and I was one of the two. I did well in camp but I was so low on their depth chart they released me the Thursday before their first preseason game. I can remember driving back home to Detroit thinking I have absolutely nothing so maybe I am done with hockey,” Gunn said. “I ended up calling my SPHL coach and asking him if I could play for him and he said absolutely so I decided I would go and try to grind it out in the SPHL. The very next morning I woke up and had a call from Clark Donatelli who was the coach in Wheeling (ECHL) who said he would love to have me play for him, so I drove to Wheeling. I was in Wheeling for a couple of months before I was traded to Allen in December 2015.”
I was struck by a couple of things while listening to Mike tell his story from the day he was sitting on the ice soaked in water in his jeans to being traded to the Allen Americans. His love and passion for the game comes through loud and clear. I am sure it is true for most pro players but with Mike, you get the feeling it is in every fiber of his body. He has had a focus on hockey that is evident all through his story. I was also impressed with how open and honest Mike was. Despite the up and downs he always saw the best in others.
Because of the struggles Gunn has endured just to become a professional hockey player, it comes across when talking to him how much he appreciates each and every day he comes to the rink or represents the team in the community. I have heard from his teammates how important he is in the locker room.
I asked him about this positive attitude even when things don’t go his way and his response was very insightful, “It is easy for me to look back and remember I had to sign up for a free agent open camp and grind from there to where I am now. I will never say it but when I hear a teammate complain because they are taken off the power play or not getting enough ice time I think to myself how much I appreciate being able to do something I love. The other thing I always keep in mind is to stay positive. It is something I get from my mom who is the most positive vibe and angel you will ever meet. She is the greatest human and anyone that meets her will say the same thing, I promise you. Some guys get down in the dumps if they are not playing or not playing in certain situations. I have always promised myself that no matter what a coach does to a player you need to treat all of your teammates the same. The other players don’t make the decisions so why should I have a grouchy attitude in the locker room. I always remind myself I am clocking in at the rink to play hockey which is the most fun thing in the world, how can you be in a bad mood at the rink. Honestly, if someone is in a bad mood at the rink I want to grab them by the shoulders, spin them around and remind them they are walking in to play hockey, the sweetest thing ever.”
I asked Mike about how playing in Allen is different from other teams he has played on and he said it comes down to one word and that word is ‘expectation.’ Mike sees Allen like the Patriots, Red Wings and Yankees where the culture and expectation is something you can feel when you arrive.
“Coach Martinson does such a good job of recruiting players that understand that culture. Accountability is not talked about but it doesn’t need to be because the guys he brings in understand that. One of the other traits of the players Marty recruits is they don’t shy away from criticism, they actually want it,” Gunn said. “If I have a teammate slacking Marty doesn’t have to point it out because he has 20 guys in the locker room that will tell that guy to get going. He doesn’t just bring in the best players, he brings in the best team. The culture in Allen is we are going to win when you push each other, work your asses off, do the right thing and play the right way.”
I heard this when I interviewed Allen captain Joel Chouinard and it was reinforced by Mike Gunn, “Joel and the others that wear the “A” do the best job of making sure everyone in the locker room understands it is not just them. Whether it is a guy that has played one game or 1000 games everybody has the same say and everybody has a role in leadership. Every single guy in that locker room is a leader in one way or another.”
I asked Mike if he was surprised after seven knee surgeries his knees have held up as a pro. His response was what makes him the player he has become. “No, I am not surprised at all. I work my butt off doing rehab, getting bigger, stronger and faster. I put in so much work I am not surprised at all. It has become an obsession with me to get bigger stronger legs and to skate faster. It is a competition I have with myself to improve. I work with our skating coach (Luke Chilcott) and love to watch him skate. He has helped me improve my skating for sure. I remember in a recent game I went to retrieve a puck and used this cutback move Luke showed me. I was able to shake the defender and dish the puck to Asuchak in the middle. As I was skating back to the bench, I said to myself, damn Luke, you are so right.”
I asked Mike who he admires as a leader and the conversation came back to his mom. You can tell she has had a big impact on the type of person he strives to be every day. In his own words, “The reason I say my mom is the best leader is she points me in the right direction. She has instilled things in my brain that has helped me in every aspect of my life. Her positive vibe and good energy make her the best leader. All of my tattoos come from a place of love, having fun and positive energy.”
I want to close by talking about what Mike does to help the Americans off the ice. He sees that as an important aspect of his job. He describes it as the difference in making people think you care and making people know you care.
In closing, I want to thank Mike Gunn for the candid conversation and sharing his story. His passion for the game is obvious and I now better understand why he cherishes every time he steps on the rink and why he is loved by his teammates, the front office, and the fans. He exhibits the positive attitude he learned from his mom each and every day. What a great representative for the Allen Americans on and off the ice.