BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Too bad Mike Dunham couldn’t bring his goalie equipment to Saucon Valley Country Club the past two days.
Saving pucks has always been easier than saving par for the 42-year-old from Concord, Mass., who spent 11 seasons between the pipes for five National Hockey League teams.
But at stroke-play qualifying for this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur contested on the Old and Weyhill Courses, Dunham competed more like a goalie than a forward: he couldn’t score.
Rounds of 78-76 weren’t low enough to qualify Dunham for match play in his second Mid-Amateur appearance and first since 2007 at Bandon Dunes, the same year he retired as a player and joined the New York Islanders as their goaltending coach. Dunham also missed the cut in 2007.
No question that [hockey] came second nature to me, said Dunham. Golf is not second nature.
I play some tournament golf [in Massachusetts], but after these last two days, I think I need to practice more.
Practice, in fact, is exactly where Dunham was headed. Islanders rookie camp starts this Friday and training camp commences on Sept. 17. For the next 3½ weeks, Dunham will be immersed in his regular job of preparing free-agent signee and starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak and his backup, Chris Johnson, for the grueling 82-game campaign to come. He will also be looking at younger goalies who either will be assigned to the team’s minor league affiliate or returned to junior hockey.
Coaching has been a way to keep Dunham close to the sport without the physical pounding, although the Islanders have struggled to regain the form the team had in the 1980s when it claimed four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1980-1983.
Two years ago, we made the playoffs and lost to Pittsburgh in the first round, he said. I enjoy working with the young guys. I enjoy watching them play the games and having success. It’s a different feeling for me now when I am watching games. You really have no control. You are sitting upstairs [in the press box] watching it.
Fortunately, being the goaltending coach doesn’t include full-time travel with the team. Every other week, Dunham can be at home. Sometimes he’ll go on road trips if there is ample time between games for practice. The toughest part of the year for him is training camp, because it’s nearly a month away from his family. His wife, Kate Merrill is a TV news anchor at WBZ in Boston and the couple has two girls: Addison (11) and Kayden (7).
The nice thing is I get to spend the summer with them, said Dunham, adding that he plays between 60 and 70 rounds of golf between the end of the NHL season in April and the start of training camp in September.
While hockey was always Dunham’s first love, he was actually born into a golf family. His father, Ron, is a Class A PGA of America professional who now works at Teton Pines in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Mike played plenty as a child, but never seriously. He attended the University of Maine, where he and current Islanders general manager Garth Snow led the Black Bears to the 1993 NCAA title. Both were members of the 1994 USA Olympic team that competed in Lillehammer, Norway. Dunham was also on the 1992 team that went to Albertville, France, which was the last time the team was completely comprised of amateurs.
Drafted 53rd overall by the New Jersey Devils in 1990, Dunham turned pro in 1993 and later shared the William Jennings Trophy for having the lowest goals-against average in the 1996-97 season with surefire future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Dunham also played for Nashville, the New York Rangers and Islanders, and the Atlanta Thrashers, compiling a career record of 141-178-35-5 with 19 shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.74.
In 2002, Dunham was chosen to his third Olympic team, but first with all NHL stars. Playing with such standouts as Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, Team USA reached the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City before falling to rival Canada.
I tell people we didn’t really win the silver, we lost the gold medal, said Dunham. It’s a special moment to be able to have an Olympic medal. It sits next to the TV.
While Dunham enjoyed his NHL career, he doesn’t miss it. He watches classic matchups from his era and can’t believe how the pace of today’s game has increased. Players are bigger and faster and Dunham is in no rush to stop a 100-mph slapshot.
When asked if he encouraged his two girls to play, an emphatic no followed.
If I am going to play [now], it’s going to be forward, said Dunham, who is entering his eighth season as the Islanders’ goalie coach. You can’t get me to put on goalie pads anymore. I have no desire to get in front of a puck. They hurt. Now that I am not getting paid to play, I’ll stay out at forward.
But summers – both during his career and now – did give Dunham a chance to reacquaint himself with golf. For starters, the game isn’t so punishing on the body. It also keeps him competitive.
Dunham is a regular in Massachusetts Golf Association events and he regularly attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur. This week, he discovered that his game still needs more refinement if he wants to qualify for match play.
You really see how much work the game needs when you play with guys that are making match play, said Dunham. I’ve got to work on things. But I played with a great group of guys and the golf courses are fantastic.
I had a great time. The USGA does everything right. The [championships] are well-run and professionally done. You just hate for it to end. Two practice rounds and two qualifying rounds and if you don’t make match play, it’s over. Now I’ve got to go back to work.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.