By Joe Monaco
BEAUMONT, Texas – When Bobby Cunningham signed on with the Texas Wildcatters, the veteran forward brought with him an impressive list of credentials and a reputation for being a flat-out scorer.
He hasn’t let anyone down.
Seven games into the season, the 28-year-old Canadian has tallied an ECHL-best eight goals, highlighted by the first hat trick in team history on October 23 at Greensboro. His 10 points and .381 shooting percentage also are tops on the Texas stat sheet, and his 21 shots on goal are second only to teammate Tony Lawrence’s 23.
“Normally I’m a slow starter,” explained Cunningham, who is entering his eighth year as a professional. “It usually takes me a little while to get in any kind of a groove.”
Not this year. The 6-3 winger so far has been Mr. Groove, providing a consistent offensive spark for an expansion Wildcatters team that has struggled to a 1-5-1 mark in its first seven games.
Said teammate and roommate Keith Cassidy: “He’s been the guy so far.”
Perhaps the funniest thing about Cunningham’s early season explosion is his inability to fully explain it.
“There’s a couple of goals I’ve scored this year – how they got in the net, I have no idea,” Cunningham said Tuesday. “I’ve just been putting it on net, and they just seem to find holes. Sometimes you get in stretches where everything you shoot seems to find a hole.”
A week-and-a-half into the season, Cunningham is in hockey’s version of “the zone.” In baseball, it means a 97-mph fastball looks like a watermelon. In basketball, the rim seems as wide as a hula-hoop. In hockey, it means the net looks as though it ought to be hanging off the back of a shrimp boat.
“Right now, the goal looks like it’s about two feet wider and a foot-and-half higher than it actually is,” Cunningham said. “And the goalie isn’t wearing any equipment. I know that feeling tends not to last, so I’m just enjoying it while I can.”
Eight goals in seven games is a nice stretch for anyone; it’s particularly nice for a guy who this time last year had considered terminating his professional hockey career.
After seven years of pro hockey, Cunningham last season opted to take a year off and return to Montreal.
“I started getting a little tired of the traveling and the packing and the unpacking,” he explained. “Plus your body just gets worn down and never gets a chance to recover.”
Still unsure of how long he’d stay in Montreal, Cunningham began taking classes at Concordia University and signed on with a semi-pro team that played a relatively low-stress 52-game schedule – 20 to 30 games fewer than many professional leagues – and practiced only once a week.
By that point, Cunningham was beginning to reach a decision about his future.
“Once I got settled, I had no interest whatsoever in playing pro hockey again,” he said. “I had a good job up in Montreal. I was getting paid well to play in the semi-pro league. To me, that was great. I could have played there another 10, 15 years.”
Enter into the equation Wildcatters coach Robert Dirk.
“I called Dirky just to say congratulations on getting the (Wildcatters) job,” said Cunningham, who had played for Dirk four years ago in Saginaw, Mich. “But when Dirky explained how things were going to be run down here and the atmosphere of the city and that people were excited about it, it gave me the itch to get back into the pro game.
“I think the negotiations took about an hour,” he added.
Asking Cunningham to confirm his age elicits a smile and a brief roll of the eyes.
“Twenty-eight years old,” he repeats, grinning across the room at Cassidy. “That sounds sick, eh? I remember when I started my pro career, I’d look at the game sheets and 80 percent of the guys were born in the 1960s. Now I look at the sheets, and 80 percent of the league was born in the 80s.”
While he finds himself among the Wildcatters’ elder statesmen, Cunningham feels as good as he has in years. The time away from the pro game has done wonders -“fresh legs, fresh mind, fresh everything,” he said – and thus far seems to have rejuvenated his career.
As for his fast start and that seemingly super-sized net?
“I know from experience that the net will get back to the size it’s supposed to be and the goalie will get a whole lot bigger,” Cunningham said. “So I’m just trying to take advantage of it now.”