By Ottawa Sports Pages, For Louis-Riel Rebelles
For many years, the Gudbranson household looked a bit like a scramble for a loose puck in front of the net – bodies flying everywhere as four kids played competitive hockey.
“I’ll tell you, I know where every single rink is in Ontario, most of Quebec and the northern States – and the shortcuts from one to the other,” laughs mom Donna Leith-Gudbranson, who, along with dad Wayne, brought their children Erik, Alex, Dennis and Chantal to roughly 20 tournaments a year, mostly out-of-town.
With the Gudbranson kids now in their 20s, Donna’s hockey travel mileage was already way down, and that was before her eldest got traded to his hometown Ottawa Senators in October.
“He just feels so happy to be home,” Donna says of the Sens’ assistant captain, Erik. “Yes, it adds a certain element of pressure – you know, you want to perform for the fans and for your friends and family – but he’s really, really ecstatic to be back in familiar territory.”
Donna is very thankful to have Erik back in Canada during the pandemic, especially since he and wife Sarah are expecting a child in late-March.
“This will be our first grandchild, and to have them so close is just phenomenal,” adds Donna.
The Gudbransons haven’t yet got to see Erik play live, and can’t really visit him due to COVID-19, though they did enjoy seeing him on his birthday for the first time in ages. The family plopped a cake in a snowbank and sang happy birthday in the 29-year-old’s driveway.
Pivoting plans during the pandemic has perhaps come easier to Donna than most. Juggling her family’s hockey schedule over 20 years was good practice.
“It was insane,” reflects Donna, who employed a colour-coded calendar to track everyone’s games and practices. “Just the food preparation – you’ve got four kids who are very, very hungry. Making sure everyone got all the nutrition they needed – that was a sport in itself.”
One weapon that made the operation feasible was Louis-Riel high school’s Sports-Study hockey program. Each Gudbranson skater went through the program, which proved not only valuable to their athletic and academic success, Donna notes, but also for family life, since her kids did their skill development and personal training during school hours – part of an enhanced phys ed program.
“It taught them tremendous discipline in terms of their school work ethic. Every minute was busy,” recounts Donna, explaining that homework had to be done right away so that it wouldn’t drag into nighttime or weekends, because rest is important to performance too.
“We summed it up by saying, ‘Work hard, play hard’ – but work hard first,” she adds. “That’s a life skill that has served them well.”
Chantal was the most recent Gudbranson to graduate from Louis-Riel, in 2017. The past Rebelles OFSAA champion played varsity hockey for most of two seasons at the University of Guelph, and is now focusing on her final year of marine & freshwater biology studies.
Dennis, who overcame leukemia as a child, finished his finance and economics degree at Concordia University this past summer. He now works for TD Securities in Candiac, Que. on Montreal’s south shore.
Alex played for Kingston and Sault Ste Marie in the OHL, and had a 6-year pro career in the AHL and ECHL, most recently with the Toronto Marlies and Newfoundland Growlers. Shoulder surgery and COVID-induced league shutdowns now have him thinking about life after hockey.
Erik’s hockey resume includes over 500 NHL games played for Florida, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and now Ottawa. The hard-nosed defenceman is often matched up against opponents’ top players and is among league leaders in hits.
Around the time he was selected 3rd overall by the Florida Panthers (which came a few days after writing his final high school exam), Erik reflected that the Louis-Riel hockey program “gave me the chance to practice and enhance my individual skills that were impossible for me to deeply develop with my club team.”
Donna remembers Erik being over-the-moon excited to tell her about the hockey program that was starting at Louis-Riel, and how he needed to transfer there for Grade 8.
During his junior hockey days, Erik would attend fellow CÉPEO French public board school Mille-Îles in Kingston during the hockey season and then finish his school year at Louis-Riel.
The 2010 OHL Scholastic Player of the Year award winner said that he “really wanted to graduate from Louis-Riel” because “I have nothing but respect for the people there and I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”
In particular, the strength training Erik did with Jean-Robert Léger at the Dome LR “helped him all the way to the NHL,” Donna notes.
Other key benefits of the program were studying in French, ingraining an active lifestyle, and being surrounded by driven, like-minded peers who all love sports, Donna highlights.
“The teachers, staff, and everyone there, they understand how the students think and their passion for sport, and they feed that passion. And for them too, it’s not just their job, teaching is also their passion,” Donna adds. “For a kid who loves sports, there’s no better place to go to school in Ottawa than Louis-Riel.”
Learn more about the Louis-Riel Sports-Study Program and available streams at: https://ottawasportspages.ca/2020/02/20/louis-riel-sports/