Net Gain on the Links
Former NHL Goalie Balances Hockey Coaching, Golf
Former NHL goaltender Mike Dunham, of Concord, Mass., blasts out of a greenside bunker on the seventh hole of Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, Vt., during the first round of the New England Amateur golf championship on Tuesday. Dunham would bogey the hole, but still finished at 1-under-par 70 for the day. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)
Mike Dunham, right, spent time in the NHL with the New York Islanders and is now their goaltending coach. (Associated Press - Luis M. Alvarez)
Killington, Vt. — In a group filled with two young whipper-snappers who occasionally (and sometimes loudly) cursed their errors on Tuesday, Mike Dunham provided the quiet eye of the storm. He should be familiar with the role.
A hockey goaltender is also the vortex of a cyclone, the center of attention, the person taking the biggest beating; Dunham held such a job for 11 National Hockey League seasons. He hasn’t left that game, either, spending the last six years since his playing retirement guiding the New York Islanders’ puck-stoppers.
But as he did growing up, and as he did as a professional athlete, Dunham finds his peace and quiet on the golf course. Even at a high level of competition — the former University of Maine netminder is competing in the New England Amateur at Green Mountain National Golf Course this week — golf remains fun in a vein that hockey sometimes can’t.
“This is different; this is still fun, it’s still something like a hobby,” a grinning Dunham said after shooting a 1-under-par 70 to open the three-day, 54-hole championship. “Growing up, I loved hockey. It’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the NHL. Hockey was the thing.
“In hockey, you’re upset after bad games. The roller-coaster ride of emotions is tiring. Here, golf, I enjoy it. Even if you hit a bad shot, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m doing it for fun. That’s why I’m an amateur.”
Jamison Randall, a recent semifinalist at the Rhode Island Amateur, holds the first-round lead at 5-under 66. Fall Mountain High graduate Ryan Kohler is in a group of five a shot off the pace, and Grantham’s Evan Russell — playing out of the Country Club of Vermont — is tied with Sugarbush’s Landon Michelson at 68.
While hockey became his job, golf has often hovered in Dunham’s background.
The 41-year-old built a solid ice resume first at Connecticut’s Canterbury School, then for three seasons at the University of Maine, the last of which culminated in the 1993 NCAA Division I championship. A third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 1990, Dunham was in the NHL team’s minor-league system for three winters before making the big club in 1996.
Most of the next 11 campaigns would be spent with Devils, Nashville, Atlanta and both New York franchises. He wasn’t looking to become a coach as his career waned when Islanders general manager Garth Snow — Dunham’s teammate at Maine — asked if guiding goaltenders might suit his transition into retirement.
“I don’t think you ever think about that while you’re competing, while you’re playing, while you’re doing your day-in and day-out routines of preparing to play hockey,” Dunham said. “All of a sudden, one day circumstances dictate — you know what? — maybe there’s something else you want to do. You want to be home with the family more. You don’t know if your body can take it anymore.
“All of those things combined, with the door opening at that position, I said, ‘Hey, why not?’ I enjoyed my career. I figured it might be time to do something at a slower pace.”
Being an NHL goaltending coach is a full-time job … and it isn’t, Dunham admitted.
So that his charges don’t tune him out — “I know I was that way when I played” — Dunham rarely spends more than a week with the team at a time. When he’s not on Long Island working with veteran Evgeni Nabakov or prospects Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin, he’ll monitor the team from his Concord, Mass., home.
“The Center Ice (television) package is a great, great thing,” he added.
A Binghamton, N.Y., native, Dunham grew up in a home surrounded by golf. His father, Ron, was a PGA professional, and his mom, Missie, ran the pro shop, responsibilities they continue today at a Wyoming resort in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Their son was always at the course, but never in a competitive sense.
“I grew up around golf,” Dunham recalled. “I grew up driving carts, cleaning clubs, picking up the range at night. … Golf’s always been part of our family, so I played it just for fun.
“As I retired and played more golf, I started getting into the tournament golf as an avenue for my competitiveness. … I always had a club in my hand (as a youth), and I played once in a while, but it was never anything serious.”
It is now, not that Dunham lets it show. Through a five-bogey, six-birdie round yesterday, there was nothing to indicate the ex-goalie was fighting any internal demon to do better or pacifying an angel urging him to show his better side.
Twice on Tuesday, Dunham followed a bogey with back-to-back birdies. His first-round score put him in good stead to make today’s mid-tournament cut.
In 2008, the summer after he bid the NHL goodbye, Dunham qualified for the U.S. Mid Amateur at Oregon’s renowned Bandon Dunes resort, an experience he called “pretty neat.” He’ll playing in qualifiers for both the Mid Am and U.S. Amateur in the coming weeks.
But he’s also not completely devoid of hockey responsibilities. Having to attend the Islanders’ prospects camp last week prevented Dunham from playing in the Massachusetts Amateur. With the ice calling, Dunham admitted this week’s tournament is only his “second or third” competitive scenario this year.
“I can feel not being tournament-sharp,” he said. “I hit some good shots, made some putts, then I hit some dumb shots that were easy. It’s just not having a lot of reps, not having a lot of tournament golf yet. The expectations are lower right now because I haven’t played a lot, so it frees you up to just hit the shots.”
To Dunham, it’s just another case of a hockey player indulging in a favorite offseason sporting passion.
“We have the summers off, usually,” he said. “We’re used to having a stick in our hands of some sort.
“Golf’s a great sport where guys can hang out, have a good time, relax, be outside, enjoy the weather and just forget about hockey, forget about fans booing you, forget about fans cheering you. It’s a nice getaway.”
Chip Shots: Dunham’s wife, Kate Merrill, is a news anchor and reporter for Boston’s WBZ-TV. … Randall, a junior at Old Dominion University, built his lead on a torrid finish, with consecutive birdies on 14, 15, 16 and 17. He played 104 holes over five Rhode Island Amateur days last week. … Kohler would have had a share of the lead if not for a bogey on the 204-yard 17th hole. He went birdie-eagle on 14 and 15 to at least gain his spot near the top of the leaderboard. … Russell enjoyed a bogey-free round, starting his day on the par-4 10th and posting birdies on 12, 16 and 8. … Among other Upper Valley competitors, Hanover’s Joe Toland is tied for 44th at 4-over 75, and clubmates Nate Choukas and Zach Pollard are in a gang of 10 tied for 67th at 77. The top 60 golfers and ties after today advance to Thursday’s final round.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.