By Dan Ninham
Johnny Grove’s backhanded goal at 4:56 of double overtime gave the Mahtomedi Zephrys a 6-5 win over the Warroad Warriors in the 2023 Class A Minnesota state boys’ hockey tournament.
This was the Warriors first loss of the season and ended with a 29-1-1 record. The Warriors are now the two-time defending Minnesota Class A state runner-up team.
Junior Peyton Sunderland wears #33 for the Warroad Warriors hockey team. He is White Earth Nation Ojibwe. He started playing varsity hockey his sophomore season for the Warroad Warriors.
To be able to play in a state hockey tournament final is a highlight for all athletes. Sunderland had a double highlight in the state tournament scoring one goal in two games in a row. These were the only goals he scored all season and they came at the right time.
“Scoring two goals with one being in the championship,” said Peyton Sunderland. “It was great celebrating with my team and community who are now family to me. It’s fun to do them proud. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget. Ever.”
“I try to do my best to represent my team, family, school, community and Indigenous people both on and off the ice,” said Sunderland. “I’m very proud of my culture and where I come from and it means a lot to me that the indigenous communities support me and my team. I also want other native youth to know their dreams can come true if they work hard.”
The journey to where he is now started a while ago as an infant. David and Jodie Sunderland adopted him from the foster care system when he was six months old.
Mom Jodie, enrolled White Earth Nation member, said, “I always had a heart to help kids and knew I wanted to adopt even when I was a kid. I worked for White Earth Human Services for years and this is how Peyton’s file crossed my desk.”
“We drove down to Cambridge and met him and the rest was history. He likes hearing about the story we met: We walked in and he was sitting in his high chair choking on a saltine cracker and the first thing I had to do was pick him up and dislodge the cracker and he looked at me and smiled and just melted my heart. That same smile you have probably seen in pictures after he scored in the state tournament,” added Jodie.
“Peyton has always struggled to find his way… his path… in a school and community where he felt he fit in,” said Jodie. “That changed when he moved to Warroad a couple years ago.”
The Sunderland’s noticed a change in Peyton. “He made the comment to me that his hockey team felt more like fam- ily,” said Jodie.
“Peyton and teammate Gaabi Boucha became close and Peyton is like Gaabi’s little brother always encouraging each other,” added Jodie.
Gaabi Boucha, enrolled member of the Northwest Angle Band #37 in Ontario, was a Warrior football and hockey star and signed a football national letter of intent at NCAA DII Northern State University (SD) next school year.
“Peyton is just always smiling and looking to laugh and joke around,” said Gaabi Boucha. “There’s been times where I’ve come to the rink and been tired and not 100% and he saw that and cracked jokes with me until my mood changes for the better.”
Sunderland set up the game winning goal to defeat Hermantown in the regular season. He also assisted on a goal against East Grand Forks and scored twice in the state tourney including once in the championship game.
“It’s a dream to play for a D1 college or professional hockey someday,” said Sunderland. “I also think it would be pretty fun to play on the same team as my brother Parker one day wherever that leads us. I need to work hard all year round and especially in the books keep- ing good grades.”
Parker, 21, plays college hockey at the University of Minnesota Crookston and is the eldest son of three boys of the Sunderland’s. Jodie talked about her two older sons and inner family hockey development: “Peyton looks up to him too and he’s spent many days and nights chasing his big brother around on the ice learning the game of hockey and probably how Peyton got so physical. Parker is my biological son and from White Earth as well although I don’t see them any differently. Davey is our eight year old son and he was also adopted at six months and he’s from White Earth and First Nations.”
According to dad David Sunderland, Peyton spent all of his first season with the Warriors skating on the fourth line and getting maybe one shift a game. He handled that well accepting it as he was just the new guy and needed to learn what the coaches wanted from him.
“The following summer Peyton made the Minnesota Tier One Blue Ox,” said dad David Sunderland. “This is a high performance team consisting of 20 of the best players from northern Minnesota born in 2006.”
Peyton shared, “We had a great top line so although it’s great scoring, my job was to be a two way player and play a 200 foot game, play both ends of the ice, break it out, defense, be physical, and not let them score. Our line was pretty good and not allowing goals along with a stellar goalie.”
According to David, then something changed. One day in practice he was told to put on a red jersey. Red jerseys are second liners.
“Once in that jersey he hasn’t looked back and he gets better with each game,” said David. “He is most noticeable in big games. I couldn’t be more proud of how he handled what could have been a dream crusher and turned it into a chance to mold himself into a Warrior!”
Click on this YouTube video of Peyton Sunderland scoring in the state tournament: https://youtu.be/g9olHruBDN0