Hunter Drew defies the odds and plays in NHL
The Gananoque Islanders Junior C club was pretty much the end of the line for local youths who didn’t want to hang up their skates yet. Going from the Gan team to the Anaheim Ducks is the hockey equivalent of traveling 85 million kilometres from Earth to Mars.
For Hunter Drew, it took hard work, grit and perseverance. And a series of fortunate events.
Now playing with the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League, he achieved his dream last year when he played two games in the big league with Anaheim.
Growing up in Kingston, Drew’s parents didn’t have enough money to get him $400 carbon fibre sticks and the latest skates. He played local youth hockey, not Triple A rep. He wasn’t the best skater on the ice, even in house league games.
And yet he made it.
“I love his story,” says Wolfe Islander Jim Hulton, his former coach with the Charlottetown Islanders Major Junior team. “Hunter’s the quintessential late bloomer. This is a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. We joke that he has a chip on his shoulder – but he uses it to his advantage.”
Drew got his start playing shinny with his twin brother and older brother at the Victoria Park rink. During the summer, it was ball hockey on the neighbourhood streets. It was a hockey family. They had season’s tickets to the Kingston Frontenacs and billeted players for a while.
“That’s what made me fall in love with it,” Drew recalls. “I thought I would see where it takes me.”
His parents, Brian and Tammy, worked extra jobs to be able to afford the expensive hockey equipment and playing fees. They ferried the boys to 6 am practices and weekend tournaments.
“My parents gave me every opportunity,” Drew says. “They are my biggest supporters in hockey and in life.”
At 6 ft 2 and 213 pounds, Drew has developed a hard-hitting physical style of play, which includes occasionally dropping the gloves. “I got in a fight in Peewee and then another in Bantam,” he says.
“The opposing players got intimidated, which opened up some room for me to get scoring opportunities.”
However, he was never the top player on any team. After a stint with the Kingston Voyageurs, he joined the Gananoque Islanders. With his hockey dream coming to an end, he enrolled at St. Lawrence College in marketing and was all set to start classes in September 2016.
A series of fortunate events
Then came the first fortunate event. He was friends with goaltender Leif Hertz and Leif convinced him to keep persevering. Leif was joining the tier II team in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. He called the coach on Drew’s behalf and the bench boss invited him to come along. Drew agreed and was all set to head to Nova Scotia. It was not a high-level team but it would keep the dream alive.
The next lucky break: Charlottetown scout Rob Ridgley, who is based in Kingston, had worked with Drew when he was with the Kingston Voyageurs. Ridgley went to Gan to check out his play with the Islanders. He gave Drew the thumbs up. Hulton credits Ridgley with “leaving no stone unturned” in the hunt for talent, even attending Gananoque Junior C games.
No. 3: As a Wolfe Islander, Hulton is often back in Kingston during the summer. Kirk Muller was hosting a camp that Drew was attending. Hulton stopped by to check him out. He was impressed with his size and skating ability. “With a big guy like that you have to worry about what their feet are like. But he definitely had potential.”
No. 4: Since Drew was heading to Nova Scotia anyway, Hulton invited him to stop in Charlottetown to try out for the Islanders.
He made the team.
“Hunter would come in and drop the gloves and bang some bodies around,” recalls Hulton. “He showed a level of aggression that we didn’t have in some of our other draft picks. He immediately made a great impression.”
Drew got off to a slow start the first season, but he stuck with it. In 42 games at the blue line, he scored just three points.
“He worked on his skills and hit the weight room every day,” Hulton recalls. “He was persistent, put in the effort and hard work and believed that he could do it.”
And then the late bloomer blossomed. In his second year, he notched 39 points.
In the 2018 NHL entry draft, the Anaheim Ducks chose him in the sixth round, 178th overall. He went to training camp but was sent back to Charlottetown, where he had another great season. He tallied 50 points, coming close to a point a game in 61 matches played.
In 2019, he had a brief stint with Tulsa and then joined the San Diego Gulls, an Anaheim farm team. The pandemic threw a wrench into things as the AHL halted play, but he was able to shift to Slovakia before returning to California.
In San Diego for the 2021-22 season, he faced another challenge. There was a surplus of defenceman and he was told to move to forward. “Obviously, I wasn’t thrilled about it but you do what you have to do,” he says.
Again, it was time to blossom. He collected 38 points last year with the Gulls – along with 134 penalty minutes.
Meanwhile, Anaheim was out of the playoffs and had nothing to lose by giving Drew a chance as the season came to a close. He got the call and skated in the final two games last year.
“I was excited to be there but nervous and didn’t want to make a mistake. But then I realized that these games didn’t mean anything, so I just went out and played hard. The second game was a lot more relaxed.”
The last-minute call-up meant that his parents couldn’t make it to the first game in time. But they were there for the second in Dallas. “It was wonderful to have them there so that they could see that everything they had done for me was paying off,” Drew says.
This season he is back in San Diego. Both the Gulls and the Ducks are struggling, languishing near the bottom of the standings. And Drew is having trouble putting points on the board.
Nevertheless, Hulton is optimistic that Drew will get another chance in the NHL. “The fact that they elevated him last year indicates that his grit and competitiveness is something they admire and that there will be more opportunities down the road.”
Concludes Hulton: “If you look at the teams that do deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they have the size to battle through all of those rounds. Hunter’s ability to hit and take a hit when necessary could add a lot of mental toughness to a team.”