Nelson’s Dryden Hunt impressed at the Regina Pats training camp over the weekend and is now one step closer to cracking the Western Hockey League squad.
Only 15 years old, the Nelson Minor Hockey product is in tough and still has a ways to go before making the final team. Surviving the opening weekend of cuts, Hunt signed a WHL contract with the team and will now battle for a regular spot as the Pats head into the exhibition portion of the season.
“It was a difficult decision and a bit of a surprise,” Hunt says about signing with the Pats. “We just thought we would come here, go through training camp and leave on Monday morning to get ready for the Westside [BC Hockey League] camp.”
Hunt’s strong play over the first few days changed everything and Pats management were keen to have the talented forward commit to major junior. In doing so, Hunt gives up the option to play college hockey in the United States.
“At first my dad wasn’t too open to it,” Hunt says of father Jeff’s apprehension to close doors. “But my advice to anybody is to ask questions… ask as many questions as possible. That’s what my dad did and when he left Regina he was 100 per cent comfortable with the decision.”
Hunt starred with the Midget AAA Kootenay Ice last season. The gifted forward scored 19 goals and added 28 assists to lead the Ice in scoring.
“He is offensively gifted and he has proven at every level that he can score,” says Simon Wheeldon, Hunt’s coach last season. “This is something he has worked for and earned.”
Wheeldon played in the WHL as a 16-year-old at the start of an impressive junior career with the Victoria Cougars and went onto a long professional stint in Europe. If Hunt cracks the final squad, Wheeldon says it will be a major step in his development.
“It’s very difficult,” Wheeldon says of Hunt’s age and November birthday, which will make him the youngest player in the WHL. “At that level you are playing against the top junior players, arguably in the world. To be a 16-year-old playing at that level… that is a big achievement.”
The Pats are coached by former NHLer Pat Conacher who has obviously liked what he has seen from the local so far. If Hunt makes the final roster, Wheeldon says it will be an important year for the youngster.
“For him it would be a development season and an opportunity to play against the best players in the country. It’s up to Regina to find out if someone is ready and obviously they feel he is ready to play at this level.”
Hunt moved from Kimberley in atom. He was a key member of the Nelson bantam rep squad that won a provincial championship in 2009. He played one season of bantam hockey at Notre Dame in Saskatchewan before returning home to play with the Ice last year.
Hunt admits the jump from major midget to major junior is a big one, but something he is ready to tackle.
“It’s just way quicker,” he says. “You have to make decisions quicker and you don’t have as much space to move.”
Though it appears he will make the team — signing a 16-year-old is a strong indication from the Pats side — Hunt says it’s still sinking in.
“If you asked me that question last year [did you think you would make major junior so young], I would have said ‘no way.’ It’s a surprise and an honour to be signed with this team. This team is in a rebuilding process with a brand new coach and I’m happy to be part of it.”
Hunt will play his first WHL exhibition game on Friday night when the Pats take on their Saskatchewan rival, the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“I’ll have mixed emotions,” Hunt says.
“Obviously I’ll be excited because this is my first WHL game, but there will be some nervousness because I’ll be playing against the older veteran players.”
Hunt is not the only member of last year’s Ice team to make an impact at a major junior camp. Castlegar’s Jesse Knowler has signed a three-year deal with the Prince Albert Raiders who are coached by former Nelson resident Bruno Campese.
Kelowna goaltender Jarrod Shamerhorn, who backstopped the Ice last season, has also signed a three-year deal with the Portland Winterhawks.
“Regardless of where I coach, my goal is to get them to the next level,” says Wheeldon, who moved many players on during his four successful years behind the bench of the Nelson Junior Leafs. “I’m certainly not going to take credit for it. In the end it’s the kids who do it through their work ethic and execution.”