Dave Van Drunen has quietly found himself a place to stay in Grand Rapids with his steady defensive play.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
There is no way Dave Van Drunen will ever take offense at being described as a “stay-at-home” defenseman.
He’s just happy to have found a home.
The Sherwood Park, Alberta native doesn’t have to worry about whether or not his bags are packed any more, a big relief after flying by the seat of his pants for several seasons.
Van Drunen played for 10 different teams in a period of three years.
There were quick stops in places like Hershey, Portland, Cincinnati and Dayton as well as longer stays in Baton Rouge, Mobile and Saginaw.
No matter where he went, it was almost always a case of “Hello, I must be going.” For Van Drunen, it was another day, another uniform.
“There are guys that I’ve passed on the way that I don’t even know I passed,” he says. “I got called up to Portland when Patrick Boileau was there and neither one of us remember each other.” He put on so many miles that he could have been dubbed “Van Lines.” As he moved from town to town, he knew the drill: giving the correct pronunciation (it’s Van Droo-nen) and proper spelling of his last name (with a space). When it appeared in print as Van Drunken, all he could do was shrug.
The biggest mistake, however, had nothing to do with his name. The fact is, most teams never gave him more than a cursory look.
“When you come to a new team, coaches don’t know what you can do. They just know what they’ve heard about you,” he says. “Maybe they’re heard a bunch of great things and then you don’t have a great game the first night and now they’re thinking the agent was just blowing smoke.” Van Drunen started making an impression with the Griffins two seasons ago . Although he split the year between Grand Rapids and Mobile, he played well enough that then-Griffins head coach Bruce Cassidy remembered his number when he was in a pinch.
“He knew I took sitting out fairly well and I would battle when I got in the lineup,” Van Drunen says. “He knew what I could do and when you build a relationship like that, you get more second and third chances to prove yourself.” But it wasn’t until this season that Van Drunen really proved that he belongs in the lineup.
Frequently paired with veteran defenseman Travis Richards, Van Drunen has compiled the team’s best plus/minus numbers, which means that the puck ends up in the opposition’s goal more often than it does in the Griffins’ net when he is on the ice.
“I think we work really well together,” Richards says. “He works extremely hard and he’s very, very smart on the ice, which is really important when you’re playing defense.” Richards thinks Van Drunen’s skills have been vastly underrated.
“I don’t think most people notice the way he plays because he’s not flashy, but he’s extremely solid,” Richards continues. “With Vandy, you know what you’re going to get. I love playing with him. I think he’s one of the better defensemen in the league. I think he’s awesome.” The admiration is mutual.
“Playing with Travis is an absolute pleasure -- the guy can’t get into any trouble,” Van Drunen says. “If I give him a bad pass, he pulls it out of his skates and he makes something happen out of nothing.” It’s rather ironic that Van Drunen should finally find a home in Grand Rapids, considering his Dutch heritage. When he tells you that his fiancee, Jill, is from the city of Holland, it’s somehow fitting.
Van Drunen grew up in the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta in the hamlet of Sherwood Park, where he was born between two sisters, Lisa and Jamie. Even though his father, Henry, played hockey, his mother, Shirley, worried that they were pushing him into the sport.
“She had a concern that they were making me play hockey, but I can’t ever remember not wanting to go to the rink,” says Van Drunen, whose parents were -- and still remain -- curling enthusiasts.
His father played for the Jersey Devils in the Eastern Hockey League at the beginning of the 1970s before finishing his career in the Netherlands.
Now the owner of an auto/safety glass firm, he coached his son into his early teens.
Van Drunen played four years of junior hockey for Prince Albert in the Western Hockey League.
“I heard from a couple of scouts my first couple of years, but nothing after that,” he says. “Then one day Marshall Johnston, who was scouting for Ottawa, called me into the stands after practice. He said the Senators were watching me, but they couldn’t offer me anything yet.
“About two weeks later, I heard from six different agents.” Van Drunen had already applied to the University of Alberta. “I figured my hockey career was done,” he says. “I had no idea what I was going to do.
Chemistry and science came pretty easy for me, so maybe I would have become a lab technician.” Instead, he got a call from the Milwaukee Admirals, who wanted him to be a backup defenseman for their playoff run. “I never saw any action, but it was a good way to learn the pro game, plus it was the first time I had ever been down to the states,” he says.
After the Admirals were bounced from the playoffs, Van Drunen got another call. It was Johnston again, this time with a contract offer. Any thoughts he had about pursuing a college degree were officially on hold.
He signed with Ottawa on May 2, 1997, two years before the Senators struck an affiliation deal with Grand Rapids. “They didn’t have a farm club, so I got loaned out to different teams,” Van Drunen says.
Van Drunen played his first game in a Griffins uniform during the 1999- 2000 season, the year he went from Mobile in the East Coast League to Grand Rapids to the NHL’s Ottawa in the space of a week.
His one and only NHL appearance came in Toronto when he got called to replace Igor Kravchuk, who was nursing a bad left knee.
“During the whole morning skate, I just stared at Kravchuk whipping around the ice. I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to play. He looks fine.’ But (assistant coach) Perry Pearn called me over after practice and told me, ‘You’re in.’ I was unbelievably excited.” That’s when the nerves started.
“I felt a little nauseous after the pre-game meal and I didn’t sleep at all when I tried to get a nap,” he says. “During the warmup, I was okay, but while we were skating right before the game, I was looking up at all the fans and I almost fell over.” Van Drunen had only seven shifts during the game for roughly four minutes of ice time, so he saw more of the bench than anything. In fact, he remembers having a difficult time knowing when he supposed to go on the ice.
“(Head coach) Jacques Martin tells everybody who’s going and when, but he stands behind the forwards and I’m sitting at the other end of the bench next to the goalie. Because of his French accent, (John) Gruden sounds really similar to Van Drunen, so every time he yelled Gruden, my head popped up.
He’d look at me like, ‘No, not you!’ It was even worse because Gruden played a ton.” For Van Drunen, who was dubbed as the “fastest to go from the Coast to the Most,” the game was mostly a blur.
“I remember a few things,’ he says. “My first shift, I made a D-to-D pass that ended up on (Daniel) Alfredsson’s stick on a partial breakaway.
Unfortunately, he didn’t score, otherwise I would have had my first point.” The Senators won the game 3-1, although it was almost 3-2. “There was a 2-on-2 and a guy came down the other side and all I heard was ‘Bing!’ Fortunately, the puck went off the post and right back out.” The next day Van Drunen was able to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, which later immortalized him on its web site as a “One Game Wonder,” one of a select number of players who have appeared in a single NHL game.
He traveled with the Senators to Vancouver, but returned to the Griffins a couple of days later. “Two more days and I would have been back home in Edmonton,” he says.
Thrilled to have gotten that one opportunity, Van Drunen someday hopes to take him name off that list of One Game Wonders. Hockey’s hall of infamous?
No thank you.
Van Drunen just laughs. He’s simply happy to be playing regularly.
“There’s nothing comparable to coming to the rink and knowing you’re going to play,” he says. “It’s fun knowing you’re going to be playing all the time and you can affect the outcome, whether it’s good or bad.
“There’s always a chance to do something for the team. You don’t really have that opportunity when you’re sitting in the stands.” Nobody knows that better than Van Drunen, who heard his name announced as a healthy scratch more times than a lot of players do in their entire career.
“It’s an unfortunate situation because you always want to play,” he says. “You don’t get used to it. You never want to do it. But it happens and you have to deal with it. All you can do is play your best when you the chance.” Van Drunen, having found a home on the Griffins blueline, is proof of what can happen when you do.
He feels incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend training camp with the Red Wings this past fall. “It was unbelievable,” says Van Drunen who had Chris Chelios and Jesse Wallin as playing partners.
So what’s it like to have Sergei Fedorov or Brendan Shanahan skating toward you? “It’s nothing you ever want to see,” he says with a chuckle. “You just hope they’re a little off their game that day and they’re not flying too fast.” Fedorov’s skills left Van Drunen awestruck.
“He’s a guy who can turn and not lose any speed, which makes it really tough for a defenseman. He can make a cut and he’s still going as fast as if he was skating in a straight line. It’s really tough to defend.” Van Drunen must have been able to hold his own. His team won the friendly intrasquad tournament. “Chelios and a couple of the guys took us to the bar for some pizza and beer,” he says. “They’re all great guys. Everybody on the team is fairly modest for the position they’re in.” Van Drunen is modest about his own accomplishments.
Asked him about scoring the Griffins’ first goal 33 seconds into the season and getting the overtime game-winner on Nov. 22 and he’ll say, “I was just in the right place at the right time.” Quiz him about what makes a good plus-minus player and he’ll tell you, “You have to give a lot of credit to luck, and being on the ice with a lot of unbelievably skilled forwards.” He is always quick to thank his teammates, whether it’s Richards for pulling him out of trouble or the forwards for padding his gaudy plus-minus numbers. “As long as you get the puck out of your end, they’re going to do most of the work and you just reap the benefits,” he says.
Van Drunen is such a nice guy, he won’t even blame the player who knocked out his front teeth earlier this season. “It was an unfortunate accident,” he says. “I stumbled a bit -- I don’t know if the guy even knew he actually hit me. It definitely wasn’t intentional.” He shrugs off the whole incident. “I wasn’t expecting to keep all of my teeth anyway,” he says, admitting that he’s still getting used to their absence. “It’s a little strange. Every now and then you bite into something and it jabs you into the gums where the teeth used to be.” Van Drunen is hoping to go back to the dentist to get a new plate after his gums heal in a couple of months. It’s one appointment that he should be able to make and keep. For once, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.