By GREGG DRINNAN
Don Hay, the head coach of the Vancouver Giants, said it felt like trading a son when the WHL team traded centre Craig Cunningham to the Portland Winterhawks on Tuesday.
“It was tough . . . very tough,” Hay said. “Craig’s been with us a long, long time. He means a lot to our organization. He was like a son to me.”
But, as the pre-Christmas trade talks progressed between Portland and Vancouver, Hay said he flashed back to his two seasons with the Tri-City Americans. During those two seasons (1998-2000), his son, Darrell, was a defenceman with the Americans.
“When I was in Tre-City,” Don said, “I had a chance to trade my son. I didn’t do it there and I thought it might have hurt the organization. Obviously, we feel this is going to help the organization, as hard as it was to trade (Cunningham).”
The Giants sent Cunningham, 20, and a 2011 sixth-round bantam draft pick to the Winterhawks for forwards Spencer Bennett, 20, and Teal Burns, 18, and two draft picks — a first-rounder in 2011 and a second-rounder in 2012.
Cunningham, a native of Trail, had 97 points in 72 games last season, good for sixth place in the WHL scoring race. He led all Western Conference scorers and was chosen the conference’s player of the year. He was selected by Boston in the fourth round of the NHL’s 2010 draft and went to camp with the Bruins, but wasn’t signed.
He returned to the Giants and started this season like a house on fire, putting up 36 points in 18 games and looking as though he would run away with the scoring title. However, the Giants captain had just nine points in his last 18 games, although he is tied for sixth in the points derby.
“The first 18 games he got points and the team was successful,” Hay said. “The last 18 games we’ve really struggled to score goals and his point production has gone down. It’s kind of a hand-in-hand thing.”
In trading away Cunningham, Hay admitted, the Giants are giving up if not the face of the franchise at least a good piece of it.
“I think that to me Craig is one of the most competitive players in the league,” Hay said. “He’s really our identity player. You really hate to lose him.”
A seventh-round pick in the 2005 bantam draft, Cunningham was a long-time member of the Vancouver organization.
“You watch him grow up,” Hay said. “You know his mom and his background. It’s really hard to see him go.”
Cunningham flew into Portland on Tuesday and was in the Winterhawks’ lineup when they dropped a 5-1 decision to the visiting Tri-City Americans last night.
Bennett, from White Rock, has 21 points in 37 games with Portland, after a 40-point freshman season. The Calgary Flames took him in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL draft.
Burns, in his first WHL season, is from Victoria and has seven points in 37 games. Portland grabbed him in the eighth round of the 2007 bantam draft. Burns becomes the third player with that surname on the Giants’ roster; however, he isn’t related to forwards Michael and Nathan Burns, who are brothers from Edmonton.
Hay said the Giants weren’t necessarily looking to move Cunningham but when the phone rang they answered it.
“It wasn’t something we were looking at doing but Portland identified a need for them,” Hay said. “They contacted us and gave us a real interesting offer to look at.
It gives us a player for the present in Bennett, a player for the future in Burns and it gives us two draft picks, one that we had to recoup on the Musil trade.”
Prior to last season, the WHL held a draft for the rights to Czech defenceman David Musil, then 16. The Kootenay Ice won his rights and traded them to the Giants for a 2011 first-round bantam draft pick. The Cunningham trade gets the Giants back into the draft’s first round.
“We’ve given up a lot over the years to remain competitive,” Hay said. “We think we will still be compettive once we get all our bodies back and find out what kind of team we are.”
On the other hand, the injuries just keep coming for the Giants, who may never have their roster together and healthy.
“We started talking (with Portland) before Christmas,” Hay said. “They wanted to do it sooner rather than later. We would have liked to have kept Cunningham at least for (Tuesday night’s) game but, at the same time, we didn’t want to take the chance either.”
After trading away Cunningham, Hay named forward James Henry, 19, as the team’s new captain. A short time later, it was learned that Henry had suffered a knee injury in Monday’s 4-1 loss to the visiting Kamloops Blazers. Henry is to be re-evaluated today but one team official said last night that the Winnipeg native may be gone for six weeks.
The Giants also confirmed Tuesday that F Randy McNaught, 20, won’t play again this season. He suffered an ankle injury during a 5-4 victory in Kamloops on Oct. 11 and later had what has turned into season-ending surgery.
Also missing with injuries are D David Musil (ankle), F Greg Lamoureux (shoulder), F Marek Tvrdon (shoulder) and F Connor Redmond (shoulder). The Giants went into last night having lost 186 man-games to injury. With Tvrdon and McNaught done for this season, that total likely will reach 300 by season’s end.
The Giants may get some help once the World Junior Championship is over as 6-foot-4 F Andrej Stastny is expected to join them. Statsny, from Slovakia, was selected by the Saskatoon Blades in the 2010 CHL import draft. The Blades dropped him after they didn’t sign him — he also was injured — and the Giants added him to their protected list.
Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun writes about the trade between the Giants and Portland Winterhawks right here.
Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province writes that Tuesday’s transaction may have been only the start of things to come for the Giants. That story is right here.
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