It happens without fail.
Escanaba’s star left wing will be warming up before a game and an opposing player will skate by and ask the question that has been asked, oh, about 12,350 times:
“What’s up, Wonder Bread?”
Levi Wunder won’t react, because how do you react to someone who scores so low on the originality scale?
Instead, Wunder just plays — and plays well. Midway through the first period of a game against Berkley United, Escanaba is a man short, which begs the question: Is Escanaba really a man short when Wunder is on the ice?
Wunder receives a pass and begins a mad dash down the ice. Quickly, it is just him against the goalie, and Wunder is moving the puck back and forth so fast the goalie is almost hypnotized by the action — and before you know it, the puck is in the goal.
That’s what’s up, fellas.
Jack Valentine knows how the Berkley United goalie feels. Valentine is Escanaba’s goalie and practices against Wunder.
“He has great stickhandling ability,” Valentine said. “Usually, if he gets on a breakaway, he’s going to score.”
Wunder might be the best offensive player in the state. Entering tonight’s game against Calumet, the Upper Peninsula phenom has 35 goals and 38.
There are several qualities that make Wunder so good. At the top of the list is his flat-out speed. If Wunder played high school football, he’d be a 4.3 guy in the 40.
While there is a lot more to Wunder than just his ability to get from one end of the arena to the other faster than anyone this side of the Big Ten, it does begin with his speed.
“I think it’s mostly the speed I have,” Wunder said. “But you have to be a student of the game, and I’ve studied a lot of different techniques and how the game is played, and I’ve kind of adapted.”
The adaptation began when he was a freshman and chose to play U-18 midget majors (Triple-A) for the Marquette Electricians.
That meant he lived with a family in Marquette and attended Marquette High while playing with a lot of 18- and 19-year-old guys, several of whom went on to play Division I hockey in college.
“Just being around them and listening to them talk and how they talk about the game and how they interact with each other made me get that much better,” Wunder said. “You have to work for your spot every day.”
Working hard never was a problem for Wunder, which is why he began that season barely earning a spot on the fourth line, but by the end he was playing on the Electricians’ first line.
In addition to the benefit of playing 65 games that season and getting bigger and stronger, just as valuable to Wunder was what happened off the ice when he interacted with teammates.
“They were really cool,” he said. “They helped me through a lot of life stuff, too, taught me a lot of things. They kind of took me under their wings and showed me how stuff works.”
While the year in Marquette was a tremendous learning experience for Wunder, the youngster couldn’t wait to come home and play for Escanaba as a sophomore.
It might not seem logical to go from playing 65 games to playing 25, but it was a natural move for Wunder, because when you grow up in Escanaba, the goal is to play for the Eskymos — just like kids in Trenton can’t wait to play for the Trojans.
“Growing up, it’s kind of a dream,” Wunder said. “You look up to all the guys. When you’re in fourth and fifth grade, you see those guys as they’re like superstars, and it’s great I got to the chance to come back and play.”
The funny aspect of Wunder’s return to Escanaba was that it was not a smooth transition back to high school hockey. You would think he could just show up and immediately dominate, but that didn’t happen.
“When I came back, I didn’t have a goal until the fourth of fifth game,” he said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t figure it out. Triple-A is a lot of speed. High school is a tough game to play because there are so many different levels of skill on the ice and you have to adjust. The competitiveness is a little more than Triple-A because you’re playing for your school, you only play 25 games, you’re playing rivals, guys are after you.
“But I finally screwed my head on and got it figured out.”
He must have figured it out well, because Wunder finished his sophomore season with 51 goals and 38 assists, and he has been a marked man since.
Last season, coach Matt Hughes played Wunder at center, but he returned to left wing this season, where he seems to be more effective.
“He’s a good center because he can battle on the wall down low,” Hughes said. “But as a winger, he’s leading the play and obviously he’s got scoring power — he can put the puck in the net, but he can also be a great playmaker. He sees plays develop very well. It’s better to have him up on the wing, puck on his stick, leading the way.”
Like a lot of kids in the U.P., Wunder’s introduction to hockey came early. But even by U.P. standards, Wunder’s was quite early.
“I was 21/2,” he said. “I remember my first hockey picture up on my wall. I had a diaper on. I was that little.”
His first official practice came on his third birthday, which wasn’t a joyous occasion. It seemed that Wunder would rather have been anywhere but on a hockey rink that day and wasn’t shy about letting his father know about it.
“I tried to lose him in the rink,” said his father, Jack. “He’d try to find me along the glass. He’d go along the edge of that rink just sobbing. But when you’d go to pull him off the ice, he wouldn’t want to come off. That went on for the first month.”
After that, Wunder was pretty much hooked on the game, so much so he would run around the house with a mini-stick in his hand from the moment he woke up until he went to bed.
At times, Wunder makes the game look simple, but that isn’t an accident. What you see on the ice is the result of countless hours of off-season conditioning.
“I take pride in my speed because I do so much in the off-season,” he said. “My house is out in the country in Ford River, it’s kind of back in the woods. I’ll do jump squats and shuttle in my backyard. There is a big tire I work out with, and I run the ski hill in Gladstone. There’s one part that’s real steep. You run it as fast as you can. You’re dog tired, but it’s tough.”
It is even tougher on opposing goalies, who discover Wunder’s speed is not limited to his skates.
Early in the second period against Berkley United, Wunder has the puck with a defender on him. Just as he crosses the blue line, he fires a laser shot into the upper-left corner of the net.
The goalie is frozen and just stands there because, seriously, who can shoot that hard from that distance?
“He has a really hard shot; he’s always shooting for the corners,” Valentine said. “He’s an excellent player.”
You might say he is a Wunder-ful player.