Gunnar VanDamme's hockey journey is about to take him 4,000 miles away from home
The defenseman has spent the last few years moving up from the USPHL and NCDC to the OJHL and the NAHL. He turned heads this season playing for Maryland and will play Division I in the fall.
ODENTON, Md. — There truly is no direct path to playing college hockey. There are so many different ways that hockey players are able to develop and refine their skills that there isn't just one perfect route to the next level.
That is particularly true with New York native Gunnar VanDamme, who has worked his way up from high school hockey all the way to a Division I commitment. You can truly see the ladder of development and how he's improved himself year after year in various junior hockey leagues.
A native of Pittsford, New York, which is located just outside of Rochester, VanDamme was exposed to the sport of hockey at a young age. His father played college lacrosse but ended up getting into hockey later on in life and VanDamme has two younger sisters; one of which is set to play Division III hockey at Oswego State in the fall and the other is a figure skater.
"I just fell in love with the game," he said. "I was always on the ice a ton and just playing mini-sticks and shooting outside. A couple winters when I was younger we had an outdoor rink too, which was really cool."
As he started to develop and become more skilled he eventually started skating for the Rochester Grizzlies travel squad before competing for Pittsford High and the Rochester Monarchs (USPHL, AAA, and NCDC). He made the jump to play for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres 18U during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21. Him and a few other teammates from the Rochester area would carpool for the 75-minute commute for Sabres practices.
He eventually found an opportunity with the help of his adviser to play in the Ontario Junior Hockey League for the Lindsay Muskies. Although he didn't originally know much about any of the Canadian junior hockey teams, the Muskies were one of the only teams who guaranteed VanDamme a roster spot.
Lindsay ended up being a great fit for the 6-foot lefthanded defenseman who posted 24 points over 48 contests that season. He was even named the team Rookie of the Year at the end of the season and prided on his smooth skating, offensive production, hockey 'IQ', and physicality.
Award 7 (Rookie of the Year)— Lindsay Jr. A Muskies (@LindsayMuskies) April 5, 2022
The best name in the OJHL Gun ar VanDamme came in and dominated.
Smooth Skating, Hard Hitting, Offense, High IQ.
VanDamme is going to have a massive year next year. pic.twitter.com/rjhj7uKJHB
VanDamme was originally planning on returning to the Muskies for a second season but the Maryland Black Bears of the NAHL ended up drafting him in the offseason.
"After talking with coaches, I decided to play here in Maryland just to get more exposure," he said. "The NAHL is a really great league so I definitely wanted to play there."
It took a while to get used to the physicality in the North American league for the 20-year-old defender along with having less time and space to work with on the ice, but he thinks that playing in Lindsay helped prepare him well for the adjustment.
The move to the Black Bears ended up being a good one as the squad is one of the top teams in the NAHL this season and are in the middle of trying to win the Robertson Cup. VanDamme currently has three goals and 25 assists over 58 games with Maryland as they approach the East Division Final.
"I'd describe myself as a puck-moving defenseman who likes to get up in the rush, likes to create offense," the New York native said about his playing style. "My biggest strength is definitely my skating and my IQ, like an offensive-defenseman."
VanDamme started to catch the eyes of various Division I collegiate programs this summer after he participated in a couple of showcases.
"You basically just put your head down and work and try to perform and produce the best that you can and trust the process," he said about the recruiting process. "I just wanted to get it over with and now I can just focus on winning and playing the game instead of worrying about who's watching and stuff like that, it kind of messed with me a little bit."
VanDamme ended up committing to play Division I hockey for Alaska Anchorage on April 25, 2023.
I am honored to announce my commitment to play NCAA Division I hockey and further my education at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I want to thank my coaches, teammates, billets and especially my family for all of their support over the years. pic.twitter.com/fRlLxQGp1L— Gunnar VanDamme (@gunnar_vandamme) April 25, 2023
"I think it's a really cool spot. They have a great schedule, they beat some pretty big schools last year, so I decided to commit there," he said on why he chose the Seawolves. "I think it was the best option for me as a player and it's a great school too so it'll be a great experience."
Even though the 20-year-old has been living away from home playing junior hockey the past two years, moving to Anchorage will certainly be much different than living in Ontario or Maryland. Anchorage is over 4000 miles away from his hometown of Pittsford and it's a four hour time difference. But, VanDamme said that when the Seawolves take road trips to play games out east that his family will likely be able to come visit him on those.
VanDamme's great grandmother, who is 106 years old, is a big fan of watching her great grandson's games online, so he will still be cheered on from afar by his family members, even if he's all the way in Alaska.
@BlackBearsNAHL Great Grandma Leona is giving you two thumbs up for a great game today. You’ve got this!! pic.twitter.com/bZK5dkADP6— Dawn VanDamme (@dvandamme) April 26, 2023
The Black Bears are currently competing for the East Division championship in the NAHL and have hopes of winning the Robertson Cup. VanDamme will finish out this season with Maryland before heading to Anchorage in the fall.