Cory Dunn entered the Kalamazoo Wings locker room one day last week and stopped in his tracks when he saw Jake Kielly sitting near a locker stall.
"I had to do a double-take when I walked in and saw his face," Dunn said. "I'm glad he's here. It's great to see some familiar faces."
Kielly's isn't the only face Dunn recognized upon his arrival in Kalamazoo this fall.
The ECHL hockey franchise in southwestern Michigan has become a meeting ground for former Austin Bruins players.
Dunn, Kielly and Brennan Sanford all played for the Bruins in the mid-2010s when the franchise made back-to-back appearances in the North American Hockey League's championship series, the Robertson Cup.
They're all in camp with the Wings, who open their regular season on Saturday.
"We've hung out a bit here and told a lot of stories from those (Austin) days," said Sanford, who was Dunn's roommate in Austin before moving on to Cedar Rapids of the USHL, then a four-year college career at Michigan State. "The overall experience with the Bruins ... it was such a tight-knit group. We all hung out together a lot. The fans were great, the atmosphere was great."
One of the first faces to greet the former Bruins upon their arrival in Kalamazoo was also a familiar one -- former Bruins play-by-play broadcaster John Peterson is in his first year as the radio voice of the Wings.
Peterson called Bruins games from 2013-15, including the 2015 Robertson Cup Finals, which featured the longest game in NAHL history, a four-overtime game against the Minnesota Wilderness at Riverside Arena in Austin.
"We were really fortunate to experience that together," said the 31-year-old Peterson, a Stillwater native. "The respect everyone had for each other, the players, the staff, coach (Chris) Tok and (Jamie) Huffman...
"You get that a little at the pro level, but it's pretty rare to have a team that is as close as those teams that went to the finals."
A SUCCESS STORY
Sanford played four seasons of Division I college hockey.
Kielly played three seasons at Division I Clarkson University, then was one of college hockey's most sought-after free agents, before signing with the Vancouver Canucks last spring.
Peterson is entering his fifth season of broadcasting professional hockey.
But Dunn, 25, who spent two seasons in Austin, may be the biggest success story the franchise has seen in its 10 years.
Listed at 5-feet-9, 150 pounds during his Bruins days, Austin's coaching staff debated throughout training camp in the fall of 2013 whether Dunn could play consistently well at the NAHL level. He was nearly cut at the end of training camp.
"I was more confident going into camp my first year in Austin than I should have been. I realized how much I didn't know," Dunn said with a chuckle. "I was scratched for 14 games, but I'd go in every Monday and ask the coaches what I needed to do better.
"I put my nose down and kept grinding. Hard work and persevering helped me get through. I think the coaches maybe knew how good I could be, it just took me time to adjust."
Once Dunn adjusted, his career skyrocketed, but he still plays with that chip on his shoulder, getting looked at differently because he has a small frame in what has become a big man's game.
By the time his two years in Austin were over, he had been named a team captain and had a 33-point season. He went on to play four years at Division III Adrian College in Michigan — along with former Bruins Brian Bachnak, Trevor Boyd and Dylan Kelley — where he became a three-time All-American, including being named First Team All-America twice.
"To this day I still really look up to Tok and Huffman, the ways they helped me develop," Dunn said. "They took a chance on me and saw something I didn't see in myself. The biggest growth in my game was when I was there in Austin."
A PLEASANT SURPRISE
But Dunn was a bit stunned when he saw Kielly sitting with the Wings' goalies in the team locker room before a practice last week.
"I hadn't put two-and-two together," Dunn said.
Kielly signed with the Canucks in early April. Three months later, Vancouver and Kalamazoo agreed to extend their partnership, the Wings serving as the ECHL affiliate for the Canucks.
And when Kielly realized that veteran Zane McIntyre and young rising star Michael DiPietro were going to be the goalies for the Canucks' top minor-league affiliate in Utica (N.Y.), he knew his best bet for playing time would come in Kalamazoo.
"It's been nice to catch up with those guys," said Kielly, who went 24-9-6 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in Austin in 2014-15. "I caught up with Dunner right away when I got here. It'll be nice to have guys like that to go through my first pro season with."
Kielly has already had plenty of experience going against big-time NHL scorers. He played full-time in Da Beauty League this past summer. Da Beauty League is a summer league that started in Edina in 2015 and this year featured such NHL stars as Brock Nelson (Warroad/N.Y. Islanders), Jake Guentzel (Hill-Murray/Pittsburgh Penguins), Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) and Brock Boeser (Burnsville/Vancouver Canucks).
Former Bruins Nico Sturm (Wild), CJ Smith (Buffalo Sabres) and Ian Scheid (MSU, Mankato) also played in the league.
"It was a different experience, a blast," Kielly said. "You kind of idolize some of these guys you're on the ice and in the locker room with, some of the best players in the world. It's 4-on-4 so it allows guys to be more creative. Overall it was a great experience."
MORE GOALS TO ACCOMPLISH
While all four former Bruins said they're happy to be in Kalamazoo and continue their careers with a pro hockey franchise, Peterson summed up the mindset that comes with a pro hockey career.
"Moving up is a motivation," said Peterson, who started his broadcast career calling high school sports in Roseau before landing with the Bruins. "I've had my eyes on that prize since Day 1, but I'm very happy and have a real peace of mind with my situation here in Kalamazoo.
"I'm not always looking to move up, but that's why we're all in this, player, coach, broadcaster or equipment manager. Everyone's goal is to make it to the highest level."