Entering the NHL 3rd overall, Erik Gudbranson made his debut in the 2011-2012 season for the Florida Panthers where he spent the next 5 seasons. He played a key role in their landing at the top of their division in the 2015-2016 season. But, with a disappointing end in the first round of playoffs, management philosophy shifted, and Gudbranson’s bags were packed as he headed to Vancouver. Despite being bounced around from Vancouver to Pittsburg, to Anaheim, he finally made his way home to the Ottawa Senators this year. Born and raised in the Nation’s Capital, Gudbranson brings his experience, stature, and defensive prowess back to his hometown. As the Sens Army welcomes him home, the Faces team catches up.
Gudbranson is well-adjusted to the NHL fame he’s been afforded. His career has been impressive, but he remains humble. He hasn’t forgotten where he comes from: though he lives in the Muskoka area during his time off, he regularly has come to visit and shoot pucks at his parents’ house in Orleans, where he grew up with his three other siblings.
It wasn’t all trips to the rink for Gudbranson growing up. Erik’s younger brother Dennis was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in 2006, and the family spent years battling this illness, which ended with a miracle bone marrow match that saved his brother’s life.
Erik shares this story and his continued commitment to supporting Canadian Blood Services, other insights and memories from his childhood in Ottawa, and what he looks forward to the most about coming home.
What are some of your favourite childhood memories from growing up in Orleans?
I was born at the Civic Hospital downtown and moved to Orleans – Chapel Hill South – when I was two. I went to a French school called Le Prelude and played hockey for the Blackburn Stingers when I was a kid. I had a great childhood. I have three younger siblings, so our was house pretty wild. If you drive by my parent’s house to this day, the garage door is still caved in from hockey pucks (laughs). I still go back there just to shoot street pucks.
Ottawa is such a great town, and the east end of Ottawa is home for me.
Were you a Sens fan growing up?
I was actually a Canadiens fan growing up but Ottawa was a very, very close second. On certain nights, I remember there were a few seasons where the Senators were actually really good and the Habs were terrible, and I just couldn’t tell my dad that I was a fan… so I probably was a Sens fan that year (laughs). Let’s put it this way: when the Sens and the Leafs were playing, I was always cheering for the Senators.
You were drafted 3rd Overall in the 2010 NHL Draft to the Florida Panthers. Recently in interviews, Brian Burke has talked about the different interview questions he asks the prospects, and how some players have talked their way out of being drafted based on how they respond to these questions. What was the pre-draft interview process like for you? Did you have a feeling Florida would draft you after you spoke with them?
I spoke to them twice, they were my first interview. I was super nervous. I had about a 20-minute conversation with them and it went extremely well, but that was 2-3 months removed from the draft. Going forward to the draft, I had a scheduled meeting with them the day before, and we ended up having an hour and 15-minute meeting. I left that room thinking “this would be the biggest head-pick ever if they didn’t pick me” (laughs). It went that well, so I kind of had an idea in the back of my mind. Going to the rink, we were all suited up, family was looking good, and my agents said “hey listen, I know where you’re getting drafted to… do you want me to tell you, or do you want to wait?” and I said “I want to wait,” but really that just solidified what I had thought the day before.
Tell us about the role your parents and family have played in your success.
They’re everything, it’s everything. I am very fortunate to have had parents who’ve been together for so long and who have always supported every decision that I’ve made. The message was pretty much “be respectful and work hard at what you do, and we’ll open as many doors as we can for you”.
Family is everything when it comes to doing what you do.
Prior to the NHL shut down due to COVID in March, you were on track to have your best offensive season yet, playing well for Anaheim after an early-season trade from the Penguins. How much confidence has last season given you as you look ahead to the upcoming season?
I had a few injuries and a few surgeries over the last 4 years, and this year was the first year where I came back and I was starting to feel good and starting to feel like my old self. The pandemic has given all those aches and pains and those surgeries a little bit of extra time to heal up, which is somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Now the frustrating part is not playing hockey (laughs). But I feel good, I feel very excited and rejuvenated, and I get to come home and play for my hometown team. There’s really nothing more exciting than that.
What did it feel like when you heard you’d been traded to Ottawa and what are you most looking forward to about playing here next season?
This year is a little bit different, so my expectations are different. But, you know, I’ve lived this crazy life of being a hockey player in a different city so far away from home, and now the excitement of being able to come home and experience that with my friends and family on a daily basis is what I’m most excited for. I just remember thinking last year how cool it was going to be able to bring someone into the dressing room and give an experience like that to someone every day. Unfortunately, that might not be the case currently, but I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to do that.
Your younger brother Dennis is a leukemia survivor and you are an active supporter of the Canadian Blood Services. You’ve done a lot of work for them over the years, including hosting your own golf tournament to raise funds. Tell us about your brother’s story and how important it is for you to raise awareness for stem cell research and the work that Canadian Blood Services do?
Dennis was diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia) in 2006. It started off really weird. He ended up having an ear infection that morphed into half his face being paralyzed. He had a couple surgeries on it and then they took him into the hospital and tested his blood, and they were like “oh my god, this is awful.” So he went through 6 months of heavy chemotherapy, went into remission for a year, and then unfortunately the cancer circled back and he had to turn to the International Bone Marrow Registry to find a bone marrow donor. The odds of finding a match are incredibly, incredibly low. They usually test your family first because that’s your best chance: to have a sibling or a parent be a match for you. But it just so happens that Dennis had no matches in the family, not even one that they would consider using or trying. My sister and I are actually a perfect match, which is super good to know for the future. But for Dennis, we had to turn to the Registry. They looked within Canada first and ended up hitting a 10 out of 10 match with a lady from Newfoundland. To explain this to you in a very broad way, the possibility is absolutely absurd. It was a 1 out of 14 chance that he would get that particular donor, and he landed on it.
So, he went to Sick Kids in Toronto for about 3 months, where they intentionally drained and completely eliminated his immune system. They had him in an air-tight room where you have to walk in like an Astronaut to visit him. But I never went to see him there because it was too risky. They intentionally gave him this new bone marrow and let him re-build himself, and they rebuilt his immune system, which is absolutely incredible. When you go through something like that as a family, how could you not be supportive of Stem Cell Research and the processes that could save lives? My family and I have been very lucky to be able to work with them, and so fortunate to still have Dennis around.
With the Senators having one of the youngest teams in the NHL, are you looking forward to the leader/mentor role that you will have on the team this year?
Ya, it’s going to be fun. It’s the first time in my career where I’ve had the opportunity to play that role. I mean, I’m still 28, so I’ve got so much to learn in this league myself. The game has evolved and is continuing to evolve so much.
I am just as excited to learn from these young guys as I am to maybe show them a thing or two that I picked up in the league (laughs).
But ya, it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m very excited about the challenge.
Tell us a little about your life away from hockey, what do you like to do?
I’ve got a few hobbies, but the biggest one is probably golfing… which is not a shock at all (laughs).
That’s the boring one, the fun one is that my wife and I love to cook. We love to take on challenges, we actually tried to do an 8-course tasting menu for my brother and sister-in-law this year.
We enjoy cooking and staying in, that kind of stuff. I live up north in the Muskoka area, just north of Toronto, so I’m trying to learn how to be useful with the outdoors too. That’s my new hobby now, is trying to pick up new tricks of the trades around my place and it’s been a lot of fun.
Best movies you’ve ever seen? Or your go-to Netflix show?
So up here, this part of the Muskokas is known to have awful internet, so I actually haven’t watched Netflix at all during the pandemic, not one show. My favourite movie though has to be Shawshank Redemption, it’s just a great, great story.
What are some of your favourite places to go to in Ottawa? What restaurants would you recommend?
I was always a huge fan of Vittoria Trattoria. I was a huge, huge fan of that place. In the east end, I was a huge fan of going to Broadway’s in Orleans for breakfast. That was an automatic thing with me and my buddies, we would always go there, we loved it. There are so many spots in Ottawa, but you have those hometown places you have to go to and that’s certainly one of them.
If you could give a young kid reading this -someone who wants to follow in your footsteps- some advice, what would you tell them based on what you’ve learned so far during your career?
Have fun with it. Always have fun with it. That’s really what it is. If you’re not having fun then there’s probably something else you should be doing that will be more fun for you. I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t enjoy everything that comes with it.