Former East student Stephen Sundberg walks into the Palm Beach Hawks locker room for the first time. It’s 7 a.m., he doesn’t know a single teammate and he’s 1000 miles away from home. For Sundberg, this is the start of his six-month job, his dream job – playing professional hockey.
Last spring, Sundberg signed a contract with the Hawks after two weeks of tryouts. Come August, Sundberg wasn’t preparing for his senior year at East. Instead he packed up his bags and spent time with his friends and family before his departure.This was the beginning of a new chapter of his life. This was his shot at the big leagues.
That first practice on the August morning made Sundberg instantly notice the superior skills his teammates had over him.
“I realized these kids were really good, a lot better than I’m used to,” Sundberg said. “So for the first week I had to play catch up and really try hard to keep up. There was a lot of conditioning and over the week I really got to know the guys better and started to get in the swing of things.”
The Hawks are a part of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL), similar to a minor league baseball team. This was the first step to the next level of his hockey career. Every morning consisted of a cup of coffee at six, goalie coaching at seven, practice at eight and crossfit training at nine-thirty, followed up by a two and a half hour nap. Then back to work.
From the time he arrived, Sundberg knew he would have to earn his place on the team. The Hawks already had a Russian goalie, Nikita who had played the previous season. As a newbie, Sundberg had to prove himself and earn his playing time. His coach had belief in him and worked with him often. Sundberg and the third goalie were only tested against the weaker teams, while Nikita rested. Sundberg began to impress his coach, and began splitting halves with Nikita. He was right where he wanted to be.
However, Sundberg’s confidence dropped after a weekend in Boston. The Hawks faced four top Northern Conference Teams, losing every game. Sundberg and his team were discouraged. For Sundberg, this was the first time he had faced that level of play. The Northerners were in as league of their own. Sundberg began to rethink his choice to play for the Hawks.
“There were a lot of times I laid awake at night thinking what am I doing here maybe I should just go home maybe my dreams won’t come true, but I stuck through it, gave it my best and got the results I wanted.”
The team stepped it up. Drills at practices became a competition to see who could finish first. There was a family bond between the players. If one man fell down, his teammate would pick him right back up. Literally.
The Hawks were playing the Atlanta Knights in a showcase game before Christmas. Sundberg had just played in the previous game, so he sat on the bench in his dress clothes. There, he watched his best friend, Brendon, get laid out by Atlanta’s biggest player in the center of the ice. Brendon crumpled to the ice. Sundberg immediately thought he had got knocked out, but Brendon slowly got on his skates, made his way to the players box and fell next to Sundberg on the bench.
Sundberg asked his buddy if he was okay. No response.
Brendon’s head was slumped down and fell into Sundberg’s arms. Sundberg turned him over and laid him on the bunch. At that moment he looked into his best friends eyes, and watched as they rolled back into his head.
“It still gives me chills picturing that,” Sundberg said.
The EMT grabbed him and pushed him out of the way. Sundberg could do nothing but watch. Brendon’s heart had stopped from the trauma, but he was revived by the EMT.
The next day the headstrong Canadian was at practice, dressed and ready to play. His coach told him to undress.
For Sundberg, that changed everything.
“He could of died 1000 miles away from home in my arms, it wasn’t just a game anymore,” Sundberg said. “He wanted it enough to almost die and come back and try to play the next day.”
Sundberg could feel his improvement in the league. On his second trip to Boston, Stephen faced the second ranked team in the North, the CD Selects from New York. Sundberg played out of his mind. Sundberg was pounded on by the Selects with 80 shots on goal, but only two got by him.
“Even though we lost 2-1, that’s when I started thinking I can make it in this league,” Sundberg said.
Sundberg and the Hawks ended the season with a 21-18 record. On Feb. 24, Sundberg came back from his long season with the Hawks, and began reconnecting with his family. He has been spending time with his grandpa who was ill while he was away. Outside of family, Sundberg continues to keep his fitness up by playing with the East lacrosse team.
Sundberg’s hockey career is not over. He has been offered a spot to play another year with the Hawks by his coach. Sundberg is still looking to play at the next level. His next step is the North American Hockey League (NAHL), which is a whole tier higher than the EJHL. After that Sundberg hopes to play college. Right now he has Division III offers but he’s holding out for better. The ultimate goal is to make it Division I, and possibly play in the NHL. It’s a long road for Sundberg, but his experiences in Palm Beach taught him he is capable of doing a lot more than he thought.
“What drives me was the dream to live my life playing hockey professionally, there’s no greater thing in my mind than that.”