Taking the long road to Boston

Life changed for the Cunningham brothers after their father's passing, but hockey was a constant. Courtesy Heather Cunningham

Some little boys look at their dads and see both a window and a mirror.

The preschool boy studies life within the outline of father's stoic, wooden frame and the smell of his sweat. Dad's qualities and mannerisms are unknowingly downloaded to the child's hard drive as he observes and mimics and absorbs the big man's presence within the little world around him. The data then forms a mirror.

The little boy sees, in part, what he should be, wants to be, or is supposed to be.

Boston Bruins right wing Craig Cunningham looked at his dad, Alvin, and saw a grinder. Alvin was always battling. When Alvin looked at his dad he saw someone who didn't provide well enough for his family. Alvin was not going to let that happen. When he married Heather Hopkins in 1984, the electrician was determined to provide for his family with a steady job, overtime and a handyman's work ethic.

Alvin was a skier in the hockey community of Trail, British Columbia. People who played hockey in Trail were more popular and had more friends, so he was determined his kids were going to play hockey. Trail's Ray Ferraro had made it all the way to the NHL and went on to play 18 seasons and score 408 goals.

Alvin and Heather were married in 1984. Their oldest son, Ryan, was born in 1989. Craig -- weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces -- was born on Thursday, Sept. 13, 1990. Mitchel was born in 1992. Three babies in three years and three months. The agreed-to arrangement was that Alvin would work all he could and Heather would stay home to raise the kids and manage the home.

Little Craig Cunningham was his dad's shadow, on his hip like a tool belt. Craig followed his father around the Trail house and around the summer campgrounds at Christina Lake in British Columbia like a caddy. Craig was, as his mother Heather describes him, a "hell child." Impatient, fearless, busy, and always comfortable around older people.

He was walking by 7 months and was riding a bicycle without training wheels before turning 2 years old. Amazingly, this boy who lived his life like a fearless X-Games athlete never got hurt.

"Craig wanted a tool box for Christmas when he was 3," Heather says, "So, we got him a Fisher Price toy tool box. Well, he opened it on Christmas morning and almost threw it at us. He wanted REAL tools."

Much of his parent's life was always making sure their fearless, energetic son was safe. One summer day, Alvin was winterizing the roof of the trailer out by the lake, turned his head for a second, and there was 3-year-old Craig on the top of the trailer after climbing up the ladder and yelling, "Look at Me! Look at Me!"

"His dad was his huge idol," says Heather. "Everything his dad did he did right along with him."

And then, two months before Craig's 6th birthday, his dad was dead. Car accident. "I told them there was a car accident and their dad went to heaven," says Heather.

The boys knew. The boys cried. Three little, scared, broken hearts. Today, Craig can see just bits and pieces of the man and that tragic summer of 1996. Perhaps that is because he was only 5 years old and, perhaps, because there are some things little boys just don't want to remember. It's too much. It makes your chest hurt and your mind race.

"Craig had a hard time dealing with it," says Heather. "He changed a little bit. He had a bit of fear factor and became our keeper. He wanted to make sure the doors were locked and windows were locked and wanted to make sure we were safe. He would come from school and make sure I was OK."

How could Craig not change? He and his father had shared the same air, the same sunshine, the unbreakable bond of father/son love. Suddenly, he was gone. Vaporized into hard-to-breathe thin air.

"When their Dad died I felt incredibly guilty for them," says Craig's mom. "We didn't have a lot. I turned my house into a daycare to provide for them. It was financially scary. But, if I had to beg, borrow and steal to get him hockey opportunities, I did."

"I would wait for them to order off the menu at a restaurant before I ordered to make sure there was enough money to cover the bill."

"I don't know how my mom did it," says Craig. "It was almost like nothing really happened. She just gutted her way through it. I do know she and my brothers gave up a lot to send me to extra hockey schools and other opportunities."

Hockey soon consumed the little boy. He never took shortcuts. Every drill was done with intensity and honest effort. The data stored within was now being uploaded on the ice. He couldn't get enough. The kid who was last for the last two laps of practice with the Zamboni waiting for him to finish would go on to play an NHL game.

"We weren't a well-off family," says Heather, "so we could not afford some of those fancy skating schools. I would take Craig public skating every Wednesday and Sunday at 5 p.m. In fact, up until Craig left home to play major junior he would go public skating by himself twice a week."

"Craig woke up every morning before school about 45 minutes and would go out and shoot 300-400 pucks. Then come home after school and shoot 300-400 more. Every single day, seven days a week."

The boy had made himself into a player and now needed more hockey than Trail had to offer.

"For four years, ages 11-14, me and two friends would take a bus from Trail to Vancouver on the weekends for a March-June spring hockey season. It was a 7-8 hour drive by car and 12 hours by bus. We had games every other weekend, and the other weekends we had two practices on Saturday and two on Sunday."

An 11-year-old. On a bus. For 12 hours with just his two buddies and a DVD player. Bus stations stops in Castlegar, Grand Forks, Rock Creek, Kelowna, Merritt, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Burnaby and finally Vancouver. Then back again on Sunday. For four years.

Craig was drafted by the Vancouver Giants in the 2005 bantam draft and began his major junior career in the fall of 2006. All of that public skating and all of those bus rides was paying off. The Giants won the Memorial Cup in Craig's rookie WHL season and Craig played five full seasons in the Western Hockey League.

Before his final junior season he was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL draft. His one-time Giants teammate Milan Lucic gave him a glowing review.

"He's a player who can score," Lucic says. "He has a great shot and he always plays hard and gritty. He fits the Bruins work ethic and he is a great fit on our team. As times he reminds me of Rich Peverley."

During the summers of his junior hockey years Craig would stay in Vancouver to train and practice. Ferraro, who helped purchase Craig's equipment immediately following his father's death, opened his home in Vancouver to Craig so he could live and train with Ferraro's son, Landon.

"He's a relentless worker," says Ferraro. "You have to literally pull him off the ice. He has a contagious energy. I'm not sure I've been around someone like him. He is fiercely protective of his mom. Seriously, he is an 11 out of a 10 as a person."

"My work ethic has gotten me where I am", says Craig. "If I didn't shoot those pucks in my garage I don't think I would shoot and score like I do."

When his major junior career ended it was on to professional hockey with the Bruins organization at the age of 21. Three full seasons in the American Hockey League have seen the hard worker continue his life's work as a hockey player, showing up every day and giving an honest effort, not getting hurt.

Craig's games played in his three seasons in Providence: 76, 75, 75.

His point totals in Providence: 36, 46, 47.

The Bruins have not been the best organization for a young player to break in with, though. They are deep, as in Stanley Cup champion deep. Job openings have been hard to come by.

"I've been discouraged at times," says Craig. "You feel like you're playing well in the AHL and you wonder if you're ever going to get a chance."

Craig did get two NHL games under his belt last season with the Bruins. A cup of coffee on the run. Now it is time to stick. For the first time in some time, he and other young Bruins prospects see roster spots open after the departures of Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton.

"I think I can play in the league, I think I can be a full-time NHL player," says Craig. "A lot of it is about timing. Being in the right place at the right time and not getting discouraged. Stick with it and keep getting better."

On Tuesday, after a training camp slowed by an a case of mononucleosis that cost him a week in August, Craig got the official word: He is on Boston's 23-man roster for opening night. Playing time is not a certainty, because the Bruins have a car full of players in similar positions.

His strengths? He's a right-handed shot. He can play on the right side and at center. He will not be outworked. He's not just playing for himself.

Craig plays for his mom, who has missed just a handful of games online going back to Craig's junior days and was able to fly to Boston for his first NHL game last season. She knows Craig doesn't just feel the urgency of constructing a career for himself and providing for himself as a young adult.

He feels a deeper burden every time he ties his skates, something he had to learn at a very young age because he didn't have a dad to tie his skates for him in the locker room.

"I know that Craig feels in his heart that he owes us, even if he doesn't," says Heather.

"He would always say, 'Mom, I'm going to pay you back one day.'"