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‘A little pinball’: He may be small, but Cunningham is a Wildcat on the ice

Riley Cunningham is just 16, but he’s already proving his worth as a member of the Valley Wildcats. He’s the only Wildcat who has played all 47 games of the season.
Riley Cunningham is just 16, but he’s already proving his worth as a member of the Valley Wildcats. He’s the only Wildcat who has played all 47 games of the season.

BERWICK, NS - The future looks bright for the Valley Junior A Wildcats, and their youngest player is a big reason why.

Riley Cunningham joined the club this past fall as a 16-year-old just out of midget hockey, and immediately stepped into a big role. Midway through the season, the Antigonish native was centering the team's second line, taking face offs against the best in the Maritime Hockey League.

Despite a rough season that saw the Junior A Wildcats finish well outside the playoff picture, Cunningham says he enjoyed being a part of it.

Riley Cunningham joined the club this past fall as a 16-year-old just out of midget hockey, and immediately stepped into a big role. Midway through the season, the Antigonish native was centering the team's second line, taking face offs against the best in the Maritime Hockey League.

Despite a rough season that saw the Junior A Wildcats finish well outside the playoff picture, Cunningham says he enjoyed being a part of it.

“You go from a year in midget where we had a huge winning team to a year like this, but I don't see much difference,” says Cunningham. “It's still fun, it's still hockey. You play hard and do as much as you can.”

 

Passion for playing

A bit of a hockey nomad, Cunningham began playing hockey in Antigonish, but also played minor hockey in Dundas, Ontario and Cape Breton before his family arrived in Halifax, where he played bantam and midget. His entire family is involved with the game, fostering that hockey love early on.

“My dad loves going out and coaching the young kids. He's really into the hockey world. He coached me on the way up. I got two or three years with him,” Cunningham said. “He coached my brother too, and still coaches my sister. We're a full hockey playing family, and my sister's better than all of us.”

Cunningham played for the Cole Harbour Wolfpack in the Nova Scotia Major Midget Hockey League before making the jump to junior hockey. He says the support in Cole Harbour was great.

“Cole Harbour's obviously a hockey town. We've had a lot of good players come out of Cole Harbour, obviously. Guys like Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. The day Crosby came home with the Stanley Cup was actually practice day, so we all got out of practice to go see that.”

Coming to play hockey in Berwick was a natural fit for Cunningham, whose roots go deep in the area. His mother grew up in the Valley, so it was something of a homecoming for him.

Riley Cunningham

‘A little pinball’

Wildcats head coach and general manager Nick Greenough says Cunningham came into training camp last August as a 16-year-old free agent, and earned himself a spot on the team thanks to his work ethic.

“He plays bigger than his size,” says Greenough. “He doesn't look like a 16-year-old out there. He's grown into a big role in our club and each day, we see the progression. He's going to be a dominant junior A player here in the next couple of years.”

Greenough calls Cunningham “a little pinball,” as his intense style often leads to him colliding with just about everything on the ice.

“He's finishing his checks, he scores big goals, penalty kills, and he's always got a smile on his face.”

Cunningham laughs when you ask him about that high-energy style of play, and says he's always tried to bring a physical edge.

“My dad always said, ‘Hit anything on skates as long as it's not wearing stripes’,” says the diminutive forward, who uses that smaller frame to his advantage. “When you're five-foot-10 and 150 pounds, you can get away with a little bit more than other folks, so I try to take advantage of it as much as I can.”

Cunningham says he just wants to play hockey, and keep having fun, for as long as he can. He wasn't drafted to a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but says that's not a big concern.

“I'm just having fun playing hockey now before it gets too complicated.”

Greenough says Cunningham is a smart kid, and despite his age, everyone in the dressing room looks up to him.

“He's a high 90's student, so hopefully we'll find him an opportunity at the next level through academics and athletics,” Greenough said. “He's a guy that I guarantee will have a letter on his jersey here in the next few years as a Valley Wildcat just because of what he brings every night. If you have guys following him, then you're going to be in great shape.”

With the final three games of the season winding down last weekend, Cunningham is the only member of the Junior A Wildcats to have dressed in every single game this season. He's put up seven goals and 12 points in 47 games, as well as 62 penalty minutes.

 

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