Photography: Ilich Mejia; Photo Assistant: Francisco Andrade; Stylist: Chad Burton/Cadre; Grooming: Antonio Hines; Video: Elaine Fancy, Spencer Bell
Michael Bunting lives by one overarching philosophy: “Never forget where you came from.”
In a literal sense, it’s hard for Bunting to forget. The Scarborough native is back home playing for his childhood team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a less literal way, though, Bunting reminds himself of his philosophy before every game at Scotiabank Arena.
“I always look up at one section,” he says. “I remember my brother and I went to a game way back. We sat in the nosebleeds and he and I were watching Toronto playing Boston, and anytime I’m standing for ‘O, Canada’ I look up to that section and reminisce [about] that.”
It’s an important moment of humility and recognition amid a long, winding career. At one point, slipping a blue and white sweater over his head and playing in front of a sellout crowd may not have seemed realistic.
Bunting played parts of six seasons in the American Hockey League as a member of the Springfield Falcons and the Tucson Road Runners. In total, he played 323 games in what is known among players, somewhat derisively, as the “Always Hungry League.” For those unfamiliar with the traditional hockey career pipeline, 323 games marks an exceptionally long tenure.
Most AHL careers tend to last a little less than two seasons. The reasons vary from player to player; the travel is taxing, the locker rooms are in constant flux, and with the looming potential of being called up to the NHL, each game feels as though it holds the weight of the world. There’s also a justifiable fear amongst AHL players that that the longer they stay in the league, the greater the chance they will be branded permanently as AHL talents, rather than NHL prospects. For every year that passes, a player’s chance to find a true, full-time role in the NHL decreases.
That’s not an environment that most can endure, but for those who can, the lessons learned are invaluable.
“Obviously my route to the NHL isn’t the most common one,” Bunting admitted. “I played more than 300 games in the minors and when that kind of happens you’re kind of [labelled as] a minor league player.”
He stayed hungry, though.
“I kind of just believed in myself the entire way, believed that I deserved to be in the NHL.”
His perseverance eventually paid off. Bunting made it to the NHL (otherwise known as the “Never Hungry League”), playing a handful of games with the Coyotes in back-to-back seasons. He broke out during the 2020-21 campaign, netting 10 goals in 21 games and, thanks to a quirk in the NHL’s rules, earned the right to test free agency after the season.
Bunting followed his north star, signing a two-year contract with the Maple Leafs. In his mind, the decision was “a no brainer.”
“Growing up in Scarborough everyone is a Toronto Maple Leaf fan,” Bunting said. “So, I’m kind of living my childhood dream now.”
In his first year with the team, he finished third in the Calder Trophy race (the NHL’s award for the league’s top rookie). The forward racked up 63 points in 79 games while playing alongside two of the Leafs’ stars, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Bunting jokes he knows his role on a line with two MVP-caliber players – “I try to get the puck to them as much as I can” – and he has added bodyguard duties to that list recently, jumping into the fray several times this season.
Despite the accolades and recognition from playing in one of the league’s top markets, he doesn’t revel in the fame. Instead, when he’s asked when he truly realized what it meant to be a Maple Leaf, Bunting brought it back to the beginning.
“I remember driving to the rink, it was one of my first weeks here and I just saw two brothers walking to the game and getting a street meat hot dog,” he remembers with a smile. “I still remember my brother and I […] we would always get a hot dog right before we went in and watched the game.”
“It was kinda funny that I was going to be the one playing now, and I wasn’t just a fan going to the game.”
Behind it all, he’s just a kid from Scarborough, playing for the Leafs, living his childhood dream. It’s been a long road, but it always led home.