Fast-rising Craig Cunningham leads Vancouver Giants to the net

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Although the Vancouver Giants have battled inconsistency through the first half of the 2009-10 Western Hockey League season, the same can’t be said about the team’s leading scorer. Craig Cunningham was given a chance to step into a starring role with the organization, and the 19-year-old Trail native has seized the opportunity. Before the Giants reached the midway mark of their schedule, Cunningham had eclipsed the career-best 50 points he registered last season, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

With Evander Kane (Atlanta) and James Wright (Tampa Bay) making their respective National Hockey League teams with junior eligibility still remaining, the Giants wondered where their offence would come from at the start of the year. Cunningham has provided the answer to that question by racking up points on a nightly basis. Not the biggest player in stature—he’s listed at 5-10 and 179 pounds—the fourth-year Giant continues to come up big when his team needs him. Cunningham leads the Giants and is among the league’s top producers in assists (35) and points (54), and is second on the club with 19 goals.

Cunningham is the classic case of a junior hockey player who has paid his dues: he worked his way through the ranks, from a wide-eyed 16-year-old on the Giants’ Memorial Cup–winning team in 2007 to the team’s go-to guy today.

“Getting an opportunity to play top-line minutes with two really good players—Brendan Gallagher and [team captain] Lance Bouma—has been big for me,” Cunningham told the Straight after the Giants’ recent 5-0 win over Chilliwack at the Pacific Coliseum. “Getting a chance to play the power play has also been good. And as a team, when we play well, it’s easy for an individual to play well too.”

And Cunningham, like so many others who have gone before him, is quick to credit much of his success to the Giants’ head coach, Don Hay, and his ability to groom young talent and make players better.

“When I first came into the league, I was more of an energy guy, finishing checks and stuff,” he said. “And as I got older and got more and more opportunities and tried to do what he was teaching me to do, things have taken off for me.”

Therein lies much of the secret to Cunningham’s success this season. Lots of players are told how to improve, but not all of them heed their coach’s advice. Cunningham’s attention to detail and his willingness to learn are among the things that stand out to the man calling the shots behind the bench.

“He’s just such a coachable young man,” Hay raved. “Right from the time he was 16, he really understood everything that was being taught to him. He tried to do everything that was being taught to him, and he continually got better and better. The evolution is that he’s a 19-year-old player now; he knows what the expectations are and he’s grown with different leaders. He’s a real Giant-type player—he’s a really hard-working young man.”

Hay likes the fact that Cunningham has shown improvement year after year, and that his numbers reflect it. After failing to score in 48 games his rookie season, the right-handed centre netted 11 the following season and last year scored 28. He appears to be well on his way to the 30-goal mark and then some this time around.

“When he was 16 we saw some skill in him, but he didn’t score a goal the whole year. But in that training camp with his own age group, he was one of the top players,” Hay recalled. “We knew he had the skill, but he wasn’t having the success as far as putting up numbers. But killing penalties and doing all the things—playing five-on-five, finishing checks—he did all those things. Now, as a 19-year-old, his skill level has caught up and he’s been a real, real good player for us.”

The thing Cunningham is enjoying the most about his individual success this season is that it’s coming despite the fact he’s seeing more attention from opponents than he’s ever faced before. Whether he’s matched up against hulking blueliners or hard-nosed forwards—or, on occasion, both—Cunningham continues to shine.

“This is the first time in my career that I’ve had to play against the other team’s best players and top checkers, and it’s kind of an honour,” Cunningham said. “We look at it as a challenge to outplay the checking line and the other team’s top defencemen.”

So far, very few have been able to keep Cunningham off the score sheet. Only once this season has he gone consecutive games without recording a point, and twice already he has registered four-point games, including a three-goal effort against Edmonton earlier this month.

And with the points he’s managed to produce, Cunningham has realized he has the ability to control hockey games at this level. The challenge now is to prove to others that he can excel as a professional.

“I’ve just got to continue to improve. You can never be good enough,” Cunningham, who received an invitation to the New York Rangers’ training camp in September, said when asked about his hockey future. “Obviously, I wasn’t drafted, and now I’m a free agent, so I want to keep playing the way I’m playing and, hopefully, I’ll get the chance to play at the next level.”

If Cunningham’s second half of the season is anything like his first, it’s a pretty safe bet someone will give him that opportunity he’s shown he deserves.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca.

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