Cameron "Awesome" Gaunce is about to turn 21, and he's already achieved what most hockey players only dream of doing: playing in the NHL. If you ask his former coaches and teammates what got him here, they would probably say it's because of his ability to evaluate his own play and do what is necessary to improve. These traits make Gaunce a leader, and one of his biggest strengths is knowing his role on a team. It's no surprise that the Colorado Avalanche drafted him in 2008 in the second round - despite being projected to go in the third - as he's the type of player the organization values. The Avs' chief scout Ted Hampson called Gaunce "a solid character player (who) has a good feel for the game. He's got good size and strength. He's got a lot of leadership and a lot of desire to play." Gaunce keeps it simple and sticks to his game, and because of that, he's already proven he can make it in the pros.
The 6'1", 203 lb. defenseman was born in Sudbury, Ontario, but spent most of his formative years in Markham. He began playing for the Markham Waxers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League in 2005 at the age of 15. That year, he established himself as a solid "two-way defenseman" with impressive skills both offensively and defensively. He ended the season tallying 11 goals and a whopping 60 assists for 71 points in 72 games. He also proved his worth physically. "Part of my game," Gaunce once said, "is to make sure there are no liberties being taken on my teammates and also to make sure the other team knows I'm on the ice." With 122 penalty minutes that year, it's safe to say his opponents knew he was out there.
Gaunce played one more year with the Waxers and then went on to play for the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors of the OHL. There, he became teammates with future NHLers Steven Stamkos, Michael del Zotto, and Cody Hodgson. To this day, Gaunce and Stamkos remain good friends, and Gaunce considers him the best player in the league. During his first season with Mississauga (2007-2008), Cameron scored 10 goals, had 30 assists, and racked up 99 penalty minutes in 63 games. His 40 points that season led all defensemen on the roster and prompted the honor of being named to the OHL All-Star Rookie team. He was also 12th in the league for points by a defenseman and awarded the Tim Horton Defenseman of the Year trophy. Quite an accomplishment for a 17-year-old rookie.
Gaunce improved on those figures in 2008-2009. In 67 games, he scored 17 goals and 47 assists for 64 points. As expected, he also amassed 110 PIMs. At the end of the season, he ranked 5th of all OHL defensemen in points and led the league in assists and plus/minus. He was Mississauga's Most Valuable Player and, once again, received the Tim Horton Defenseman of the Year award. The Eastern Conference coaches voted him the Best Defensive Defenseman that season, and he was a top-3 finalist for the Smartest Player, Best Playmaker and Best Offensive Defenseman awards.
He signed a 3 year, entry-level contract with the Avalanche in May of 2009 and attended training camp in the fall. Gaunce didn't do as well as he'd hoped during camp. "I think the biggest thing...is that I wasn’t playing my game," said Gaunce. "I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. I was trying to be too defensive and not step on the older guys’ toes and respect everyone." It didn't help that he was paired with Adam Foote, the senior member of the Avalanche and someone to whom Gaunce had looked up. Word has it that the rookie often apologized to the veteran for making errant passes and that Foote quickly put a stop to it. Lesson learned.
The 2009-2010 season in Missassauga was cut short for Gaunce. He suffered a separated shoulder injury in February, keeping him out for 5 weeks. He said he felt sorry for himself for one night - and one only - before focusing back on what mattered most: supporting the team. That's definitely the kind of attitude you'd expect of a captain, a title bestowed upon Gaunce that year. Despite only playing 55 games, he still put up 37 points, with 31 coming as assists, and was second on the team with +29. He also had 112 PIMs; clearly that part of his game wasn't thrown off by the injury. In the Eastern Conference All-Stars game, he netted 3 assists and was a +7. In the playoffs, he led the team with just under a point-per-game pace in 16 games. He was the Assistant Captain for the OHL Eastern Conference All-Star Classic and the OHL Subway Super Series. And once again, he was in the top-3 finalists for the Smartest Player, Best Playmaker and Best Offensive Defenseman awards for the OHL.
Gaunce came back for his second training camp with the Avalanche in 2010 a more confident and prepared player. He worked hard and showed his skill as a big, positionally sound defenseman who is tough along the boards and has a scoring touch. Although he didn't make the cut and was assigned to Lake Erie, he felt good about his performance. In the 54 games he played with the Monsters, he registered 14 assists and was a +9. That was good enough for a call up when injuries thinned the Avalanche's blueline.
The Monsters had just finished pre-game warm up on February 12, 2011, when Cameron got the news. It was a whirlwind situation, going straight from that warm up to the pre-game for the Avs in Nashville. "I think that really helped, because I didn’t have as much time to go over exactly what was happening and let it sink in. It was just plane, plane and game, so that really helped. Going there it was a great atmosphere. After the first shift, I was even more excited to be there." Just three games later, Gaunce scored his first NHL goal against Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fate would have it that the Avalanche organization made arrangements for his parents to be in the crowd that night; thus, his family was there to witness another dream come true.
Gaunce knows his biggest value is his team-first mentality. "There’s nothing more important to me than the success of our team," he said. In a recent game against the Anaheim Ducks, the rookie proved this to be true. After serving a roughing penalty for containing Jarkko Ruutu (who was harassing netminder Peter Budaj after the whistle), Gaunce immediately went after the Ducks' Luca Sbisa for targeting teammate Milan Hejduk with a high hit. It's safe to assume the young defenseman's stock skyrocketed.
Whether it's sticking up for teammates, controlling the puck along the boards, or sending a clean outlet pass to his forwards, Cameron Gaunce has certainly shown he's an NHL caliber player. And even though his favorite player is Eric Lindros, he is destined to be a fan favorite in Colorado.