The New French Connection

Wes Cunningham - Bakersfield Condors

Wes Cunningham playing for the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors. Next season, he’ll be a Rouen Dragon – Photo by Mark Nessia

When you’re 6000km from home, a connection to where you come from is a good thing. As Dresden’s Wes Cunningham, and Wallaceburg’s Jamie Vanderveeken look out across the ice next season in France, where they will play professional hockey in Ligue Magnus, the country’s top league, they’ll see that connection in each other.

Cunningham and Vanderveeken, who both played professionally in North America last season, signed in July with the Rouen Dragons and Amiens Gothics respectively in France for the 2014-2015 season. Although both, who grew up only ten minutes from each other and played minor hockey against one another are far from home, each has played in Europe before, and are excited for the culture shock that awaits.

“I had a great experience my first time overseas and when this opportunity came about it was one I couldn’t really turn down,” says Vanderveeken, who was sixth among league scoring for defenseman with 41-points for the Central Hockey League’s Brampton Beast last season.

Jamie Vanderveeken - Brampton Beast - CHL

Jamie Vanderveeken, who will play for the Amiens Gothics next season, with the Brampton Beast of the CHL – Photo by Brampton Beast

“I think that my experience over there before will definitely help me adapt a little easier, but it’s a new country and different culture so I will just have an open mind and enjoy the experience,” continued Vanderveeken, who split the 2011-2012 season between teams in Italy and England.

“I had a great experience in North America and played for 5 years here,” explained Cunningham, who was an assistant captain of the ECHL’s Baskersfield Condors last season about his decision to leave North America. “I figured why not try Europe again while I’m young enough to experience the culture and have the opportunity to get paid for it. I figured I’d try another country and another league, and just see what happens.”

Cunningham, who played professionally in Norway in 2012-2013, says he’s also prepared for the culture change.

“Anytime you go to a different country you have to adapt,” says Cunningham, a former ECHL all-star, who had 26-points with Bakersfield last season. “It will be different and knowing there is a language barrier it will be tough for a while. “

Being Canadian, and having a basic knowledge of French from school is definitely an asset for both athletes, but both know they still have room to improve in their French language skills.

“My French will definitely need some brushing up,” said Vanderveeken with a laugh, “but from what I hear most locals in the area know some English.”

“I know a little French, and my wife knows more than I do, so it won’t be as bad as going to Norway,” explained Cunningham, referencing his last stint overseas.

Based on that prior experience, Cunningham knows language won’t be the only change, but the style of hockey will also be different.

“It’s a little different, we learned French in grade school so hopefully that will help. I know the hockey is a little different as well. It will take time to adjust to big ice and the style of play, but after a few weeks, you adapt to the style and learn, and it all becomes normal again.”

With culture and language gaps ahead, the new French connection, the one Cunningham and Vanderveeken will feel when they see each other across the ice as opponents, will be a reassuring one for these athletes who will play an ocean away from home.

“I played against him when I was younger and in minor hockey,” says Cunningham of Vanderveeken. “It’s neat knowing there are a lot of great hockey players in Chatham-Kent. Kids are getting drafted to the NHL and OHL. It’s cool knowing you’re going to a country in Europe, and I grew up ten minutes down the road from him. It’s exciting to see hockey start to boom in our area, and guys are finding success.”

“Wes and I have played against each other growing up and have continued on to have successful careers as professionals,” says Vanderveeken. “It’s great to see him take a job in France, it will be fun to play one another over there once again. I wish him the best of luck this season.”

Although they’re filled with well wishes now, and will always hold the connection of home, it will be game on for these two when the puck drops this September in France.

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