Buy Photo

Rod Thornburg/ Special to The Californian

Condors Wes Cunningham and Chase Schaber chase after the puck in a intersquad scrimmage.

Condors coach Troy Mann knew there was an offensive upside to veteran defenseman Wes Cunningham, which is why he worked hard over the summer to get him to sign with Bakersfield.

What he didn't know was how much grit Cunningham possessed in his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame.

"He's come in known to be a puck mover and power-play guy but I've been really impressed with his ability to play physical," Mann said. "He seems like a guy who will do anything for the team.

"He fought in preseason, which is something as a veteran guy he didn't need to do. I think he's going to be overall our best two-way defenseman."

For Cunningham, the physical play (he also had a crushing body check in Sunday's preseason game) comes with the territory.

"I think I'm more of an offensive guy, my numbers have kind of shown that in the past, but I still have to have a little grit there, too," he said. "(Grit has) always got to be a part of your game. You can be a very skilled guy but to be a complete player you still have to hit, you have to play gritty. I try to bring that to the table every night."

Cunningham, 26, amassed 156 points in 265 games in the ECHL with Elmira, N.Y., and Greenville, S.C., before heading to Norway last season. He had 21 points in 38 regular season games and put up 10 points in 10 playoff games.

But Norway and the European-style of hockey wasn't for him.

"I just wanted a change, to try something new," he said of the European experiment. "I've always heard it was a different style of hockey and told it might suit me a little bit but I kind of missed the old North American game so I came back and am going to give it another go here."

Part of the reason Cunningham returned to North America is his belief that he can play at the AHL level. But to get there, he has to prove himself again at this level.

"I'm notr all that old right now so I'm kind of trying to make my dream come true here," he said.

So Cunningham and his agent carefully weighed their options this summer before ultimately choosing the Condors.

"I wanted to be in a position for me to succeed and I'm going to do everything I can to succeed and Bakersfield seemed like the right fit," he said. "We have a rebuilding team here and it looks like we're going to do very well and I'm looking forward to it."

The ultimate goal, of course, is to get noticed and a call up but for that to happen Cunningham knows his entire focus needs to be on playing well in Bakersfield and helping the Condors succeed.

"I'd love to be back in the AHL at any point this season but right now I'm worried about Bakersfield," he said. "I'm just trying to be a complete player here, try to lead by example for some of the younger guys or even rookies who may not be younger. I just want to lead by example and show them what pro hockey's about."

Mann said Cunningham's leadership will be important, especially on a defensive unit which features six of Bakersfield's league-high 11 rookies.

"Right now we're very young defensively," Mann said. "We've got a lot of rookies on the back end and I think between Cunningham and (Erik) Burgdoerfer, those two guys are going to have to be the anchors."

Cunningham relishes the chance to help the rookies, but says they will hold their own.

"Obviously the veterans, we have to lead by example because we've been here before," he said. "I'm not worried about the rookies doing anything wrong. Just because they're a rookie doesn't mean they don't have the girt or talent or anything like that. They all deserve to be here and we have a great team."