Vancouver Canucks

The Long Road

...Hunt's story a reminder that "every player has their own path"

April 5, 2022

Daniel Gee - @DanielGScouting

They don't call the annual high-profile NCAA tournaments "March Madness" for nothing. As NCAA hockey and basketball teams fight to become champions on the national stage, a second kind of madness exists for NCAA free agents who display their talent on a sheet of ice. 

This exciting time of the year offers National Hockey League organizations, like the Vancouver Canucks, the ability to add players devoid of the usual cost of roster assets or draft picks. Canucks General Manager, Patrik Allvin, stressed the importance of the yearly process during his introductory press conference back in January.

"I think that it's a very competitive league and you need good depth," he said. "For us to become a consistent playoff team and a consistent contender, we need to build up the depth of the organization."

"Obviously, we want to play a fast and skilled game, and I think in order to be successful, you have to find players outside the first round in the NHL Entry Draft. You need to complement your organization with college and European free agents and I think that is something I am looking forward to."

The journey leading up to these moments for college players is so much more layered than a surface level addition to the organization. 

College free agents who are eligible to sign NHL contracts have often taken the long road to get to this stage. Passed over in the draft multiple times, years playing Junior A hockey to preserve NCAA-eligibility; the fact of the matter is some players are late bloomers. 

For Canucks defenceman Brad Hunt and his tenure with the Burnaby Express of the British Columbia Hockey League, this was certainly the case. 

"I was always a smaller kid growing up," Hunt said. "The WHL was kind of never … I mean as a kid growing up, that's where you think you need to play to make the next level. But the best route for me was to play with Burnaby, and try to get a scholarship somewhere, and that way I came into pro a little bit older and more developed as a player."

Something often neglected is the extraordinary amount of work that people do behind the scenes. For the left-shot defender, his coaches at Bemidji State University - a college located in Northwestern Minnesota, not far from the Manitoba border, made all the difference.

"So I went to school at 19, and I got stronger and I got faster," he said. "I developed parts of my game that I didn't even know could be part of my game. And the coaches in Bemidji were great with me, Bert Gilling and Ted Belisle were huge, and the head coach was Tom Serratore who was fantastic for me for four years. But the thing is just developing my game. I came out of college at 23 years old playing pro, versus playing at 18 or 19. So I was more on my way to manhood versus being really young and I think that for me was the best way I could have come."

For college free agents, this is truly an exciting and nerve-racking time; a crucial juncture of their careers where the impact of their choices will only amplify as time roars on. Who can provide the right development plan? Which team can give more opportunity? The questions are endless.

For Hunt, connections were key.

"It was just one of those things where I got the phone call as soon as our season ended," he said. "My agent, Dan Plante, played with the [Chicago] Wolves and pretty much said, 'Do you want to go down and play and end the season there?'"

Signing a deal is only part of the equation, development being the true factor that leads to success. The crucial aspect about development is that it is non-linear. Allvin broke down one of his general player development philosophies, highlighting the synergistic nature of staff and investment of time needed to make an NHLer. 

"Every player has their own path," he said. "It's not a sprint to get to the NHL, it's a marathon. So you have to be patient with the players and you have to support them with the right people and coaches, and development staff to help every single player maximize their chances to become a full-time NHL player." 

Canucks Assistant General Manager Émilie Castonguay stressed similar views about player development at her introductory press conference.

"I think player development, and surrounding the players with the right resources and the right people so they can become the best version of themselves, is really important," Castonguay said. "For me, to have a human impact in this organization is super important." 

Hunt signed an amateur tryout deal with the Chicago Wolves (Vancouver's American Hockey League affiliate at the time) in March 2012 after racking up 112 points over 150 NCAA games, again, receiving valuable development help from his coaching staff as he hit professional hockey.

"Then I go down, I really don't know the team and I walk into the room, and Craig MacTavish is the coach, who is a fantastic man, and he's really the person who put his neck on the line to give me a chance in the NHL, and started my career," Hunt said. "I will always be thankful for Craig, and what he did for me, to start my career. But yeah, just kind of took off from there. And the next season we had Scott Arniel (who is with Washington). It's honestly such a great experience - a lot of really great people who really helped me a lot." 

For Hunt, it is clear the human impact was immense and the development of his game didn't stop when he reached the AHL. Always learning, the Maple Ridge, British Columbia native underlined his philosophy that helped him during his initial jump to professional hockey and maintain longevity in hockey over his career.

"I think you realize you are playing with bigger, stronger players, so the way you defend is a little different," he said. "The way other guys think the game, you learn so much from other players. It's just a learning process throughout your whole career, and I am still learning every day from players and coaches. It's been awesome." 

Fast-forwarding to the present day, not many players exemplify found NCAA value like Hunt. Multiple 50+ point AHL seasons and over 510 professional hockey games highlight his career. 

Hunt had a pointed message for future NCAA free agents, one that could have featured in the film Remember the Titans, a movie that is full of motivational monologues that could get practically anyone to run through a wall.  

"Don't give up - and don't be crushed if you don't get an NHL contract right away."

"At the end of the day if you get a chance to play in the ECHL or AHL, you get to play hockey for a living and you get to collect a paycheque to play hockey - never give up no matter what. I mean just keep pushing forward and getting better and better, don't get down on yourself. There's plenty of options that you can do for hockey. I mean, everyone's goal is to play in the NHL, but you can still have a great career, whether it is in the AHL or not."