Hunt top-scoring Wolves defenceman
The point man passes to a teammate along the boards, with a couple of quick cuts he is tracking backward along the blueline, then takes a return pass and smoothly one-times a slapshot into the top of the net.
Brad Hunt makes the game look so easy.
The blueliner from Maple Ridge is leading all the defencemen on the Chicago Wolves in points this AHL season. Scoring at a pace of a point every two games is good for a defenceman at the pro level, and Hunt has 16 points in 29 games.
The Vancouver Canucks farm team played two games against the Abbotsford Heat on the weekend, and after Friday’s morning skate at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, a sweat-soaked Hunt talked about his first full season of professional hockey.
This is Hunt’s rookie season, but last year he got in nine regular season games, and another five playoff contests.
“That really helped in the transition into this year,” he said.
He had come out of Bemidji State University, a Minnesota hockey Mecca that competes in the NCAA. It was the time of his life. He was an All-American, in both hockey and as a business student, and graduated as the school’s all-time leader in career points by a defenceman with 112. He didn’t miss a game in his college career, playing in 150.
Hunt was never drafted by the Canucks – it was the Wolves who signed him as a free agent.
Listed at five-foot-nine and 188 pounds, Hunt must provide offence to cut it as a pro, and he has done that.
“I’m playing my role and learning from the guys,” he said.
Like all of his buddies who played street hockey on Bruce Avenue, Hunt dreamed about playing in the NHL someday, and the closer he gets, the harder he works.
Veteran AHLer Nolan Baumgartner played 887 games in the American Hockey League and 143 in the NHL over his 16 seasons of pro hockey. He has been a mentor to Hunt both as a teammate last year and now as an assistant coach. He has helped him show poise with the puck.
“It’s about realizing that you have more time than you think you have,” said Hunt.
His role is to make a good first pass out of his defensive zone, and then jump up into the play to contribute on offence.
“But I’ve got to work and work on defence,” he allows.
Hunt has been fortunate to have great coaches, going back to his minor hockey days. He lists “back-home” instructors and coaches Ralph Vos, Spencer Levin – with his midget team – then Bobby Vermette, of the Jr. B Flames, as key influences. When he got the Burnaby Bulldogs of the BCHL, former Vancouver Canucks standout defenceman Rick Lanz boosted Hunt’s game to a new level.
“He taught me a lot of defensive zone stuff – moving the puck and reading the play,” he said. “It was good to learn from someone who had played at such a high level.”
Hunt’s tools are obvious – the crisp tape-to-tape passes, slick skating and the rifle shot.
“Hunt has impressed quite a bit,” said Wolves assistant coach Mike Foligno, who played more than 1,000 games in the NHL.
He said the blueliner has a great attitude, tremendous confidence, and can always lose a forechecker with shifty escape moves. However, he still has to work on his speed, and keeping a tight gap between himself and opposing puck carriers.
“From the start of the season to now, he’s gotten better and better every day,” said Foligno.
Defencemen who are under six feet always face questions about their size. Foligno said Hunt can struggle to contain some of the AHL’s big forwards when they play the “down low” game – using their body to protect the puck and bringing it to the front of the net.
“That’s the impetus for him to train even harder, to get stronger,” said Foligno.
The coach expects Hunt will be even more effective as he learns more about the league – who the dangerous opponents are, and what they do; what other teams will “give” an opposing offence, and what they take away.
Friday night his Wolves beat the Heat 3-1, and Hunt chalked up two more assists – one off a pass, and the other a hard shot that was tipped. Both goals were scored by Brett Sterling, who had a hat trick on the night. The next night the Wolves won 1-0.
With the NHL returning from a work stoppage, last week some of the top Wolves defencemen – Kevin Connauton and Chris Tanev – were called up. That creates opportunities for guys like Hunt to get more minutes, and to shine.
“That magnifies his role a little bit,” agreed Foligno.
“It’s about taking that opportunity and running with it,” said Hunt.
With the Milwaukee Admirals coming to Abbotsford this weekend, it could have been a chance for Maple Ridge hockey fans to see another local defenceman in Vic Bartley, but on Sunday he Tweeted: “Off to Nashville.”
Bartley is in his second season with the Admirals, and has 19 points in 37 games, but has yet to play a game with their parent club, the Predators.
Bartley and Hunt were teammates in Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey, and remain good friends.