Munn’s Rollercoaster Season Has Him In Finals

By Harvey Yavener
© 2005 The Times of Trenton

TRENTON – Think that Kingda Ka which opened the other day at Great Adventure is this area’s only world-class roller-coaster? Try the one that Steve Munn has been on.

“It’s been the most-remarkable year I’ve ever had, nothing but ups and downs,” says the 26-year-old leader of Mike Haviland’s defense, for whom all the downs will have been worth it if the Titans can win two more games and bring home that rarest of distinctions – a pro sports title for Trenton.

“Go back to January,” says Munn, who grew up in a sparsely settled farm area of northern Saskatchewan, where “my old man ran the general store and its motto was: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” go back to doctors in Augusta deciding to operate on a left shoulder that a month of rest didn’t cure, back to having his anterior-cruciate and labrum repaired despite his apprehension it would end his career.

“So many good things have happened since,” he says, including finding the woman of his dreams whom he’ll marry a few weeks after this season ends, learning he’ll become a father in the fall, and getting reunited with Haviland, his 2003 coach with the Atlantic City Bullies.

That was a championship team in A.C., and its no coincidence Haviland reached out to acquire Munn in the March 10 trade that turned a erratic team into one now on the brink of the Kelly Cup.

“Steve was the missing piece of our puzzle,” says Titans winger Nick Deschenes, who played ECAC hockey for Yale against Munn and RPI, “exactly what we didn’t have. He brought assertiveness, toughness. We were like a lot of lost puppies until he came.”

Munn saw the same thing, reporting that’s also what Haviland told him was needed, the reason the coach worked so hard to keep other teams – including Atlantic City – from pulling off the trade with struggling Augusta.

“Absolutely that was the case,” he said after yesterday’s film review of the two games the Titans won in Florida last weekend to take the ECHL title series by the throat, “that he didn’t have a physical presence on the ice. I can fight if I have to, but it’s my attitude, my intensity, the commitment to play defense, that Havvy felt was lacking.

“The team accepted me immediately. What a welcome. What were we after I got here, 13-and-2, to make the playoffs and now 26-6 including postseason? In Augusta, I think we were 3-and-15, and I was miserable. Then having to sit in the stands for a month after I got hurt.

“And suddenly to be here, with the best group of pro guys I’ve been around, the family atmosphere, the tightness among the team. What a turnaround in my life.”

He grew up in an area with 150 residents, where the only varsity sport in the school was volleyball because, “You could play with six guys and that’s all we had come out. Only 13 kids in my graduating class.”

But no place in Canada is too small to have a local hockey rink, “all the fathers had the key,” and he played well enough in a by-invitation-only tournament in Boston to get attention from a host of big-time colleges, including Princeton. Instead, at 18, he chose to play for two years in a junior league in Merritt, British Columbia, where he matured, then opted to play four years at Rensselaer.

“Great decision,” he says, “loved the place, got a degree in management. Finance degrees always are valuable, though I’d love to coach, maybe go back to RPI as part of the administration.”

That can wait. First comes the bid to lock up the Kelly Cup. Then, maybe, to see if the NHL has room for a 6-2, 220-pound tough guy who understands, “My job is to get the puck off the glass and get it out. I don’t worry about scoring. I’ve got a lot more stitches from this game than goals.”

After Atlantic City won the 2003 Kelly Cup, he finished the year with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers and “showed I can play at that level.” This season began with his winning an AHL roster spot in Providence, but the influx of young talent coming down from the striking NHL cost him playing time and he was optioned to Augusta.

“I never saw an azalea, didn’t even get to go to the Masters,” he laughs, “but it was worth it, being traded to Trenton. I’ve loved it here. Everything about it. The area, the boosters, the team. How we’d all love to give Trenton a championship.”

And how, Munn added, he’d “love to see the stands filled this weekend, the way they were when we played in Alaska and Florida. You can’t imagine the lift that gives a team, the excitement a filled building brings.”

The one thing he isn’t doing yet is polishing a spot to put the cup.

“What we did, going into their barn and winning twice,” says Munn, “that’s such a tough thing to do. But Florida is a great team and we still haven’t seen their best. There’s no way we’ll be overconfident. These are seven-game series and you have to be ready to play all seven.

“But if we can win this thing for Trenton, it would be phenomenal. Funny, when we won in Atlantic City, there wasn’t a huge celebration, most of the team had departed by the next morning. Here, close as this team is, loyal as our fan base, we might still be celebrating a week later.

“Wouldn’t that be something for me, considering the roller-roaster year this has been? To finish what had been the worst year of my life as the best? A dream come true.”