Earning top marks in the classroom and on the ice has been pretty much the norm for Hunter Haight.
That commitment and drive, says the Barrie Colts centre and top NHL prospect, is a result, in large part, of those closest to him pushing him to strive to be his best at whatever challenge he takes on.
And now as he prepares to hear his name called at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft which kicks off Thursday night (July 7) at the Centre Bell in Montreal, Haight’s especially happy that those who have always supported him will be there to share the experience on his biggest day.
“I have a very close and supportive family,” said the 18-year-old native of Strathroy, who will have his father, Steve, mother, Amy, older brother, Griffin, girlfriend, Brie, as well as a few uncles, his girlfriend’s family and billet family with him in Montreal at the draft.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s awesome,” added Haight of the support. “It’s about appreciating everything they do for you as a hockey player and as a person. They’re always there for me, trying to help me and support me through life and through sport.”
Haight, who comes into the NHL draft ranked 44th overall among North American skaters is expected to go in the second round which begins Friday morning.
He admits there’s some nerves heading into the weekend, but he can feel the excitement building.
“I’ve been looking forward to draft day ever since I knew what hockey was watching the NHL,” said Haight, whose agency had him fitted by a tailor for his draft suit at the recent NHL combine. “That was my dream. For them, giving the opportunity for me to follow that dream and pursue it, I’m very grateful for them.
“At the same time, they’re going to enjoy the day because they did sacrifice a lot for me, a lot of time, a lot of money. So hopefully they enjoy it.”
Haight’s parents have always pushed him to be his best be it in the classroom, on the ice or as a person.
“For my brother and myself, we’re very fortunate to have the parents that we do,” said the forward who was Barrie’s ninth overall pick in the 2020 OHL Priority Selection. “My mom was at home with both of us through the first 15 years of our lives running a home daycare while my dad was working.
“Being a police officer and with the (job) he was always gone having to work and getting called out. Our mom was a huge part of how we developed as people, learning mannerisms and things like that.”
With his father being in law enforcement as a detachment manager with the Ontario Provincial Police, Haight says he and his brother were “introduced to a lot of life experiences that not a lot of kids get to be a part of.”
Haight says he was often at the police station surrounded by weapons, armoured vehicles, bomb technicians and robots.
“It’s a lot of lessons and a lot of leadership, learning that from my dad,” he said. “The discipline kind of thing, it’s always been pushed on my brother and me to do the best we can in all facets of our life, whether it’s academically as people or athletically.”
Haight said he was also fortunate to have another solid role model in Griffin.
“I’ve always idolized my brother growing up,” he said. “He was super athletic. He was a hockey player too before he chose his military route, and he’s one of the nicest people that I know. I look up to him.”
All those attributes, says Colts head coach Marty Williamson, are why NHL teams should want to have Haight in their organization.
With last year’s regular season and playoffs cancelled because of the pandemic, Haight had a strong rookie season with the Colts, scoring 22 goals and recording 41 points in 63 games.
His ability to play both ends of the ice made him a player Williamson could trust at key times in a game.
“He’s a real intelligent young player,” said Williamson, who is vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina but will be at the NHL draft later this week. “He’s strong defensively, he showed offence. Hunter’s going to be a good pro.
“He’s a very determined young man and when you got hockey IQ and you’ve been given physical tools, good things are ahead of you as long as you want to do the work and he’s not shy about doing the work.”
Coming off a strong summer camp with Hockey Canada, Haight drew a lot of attention coming into his first season. The expectations were high and while it took Haight some time to find his game the young forward stayed with the process and kept his focus on the ice.
“My dad’s always told me never get too high, get too low whether it’s a win, loss, or good or bad. It’s always about moving forward and pushing to better yourself at all times.
“For me, it’s just been instilled in me ever since I was a kid to stay on that even keel with that mentality.”
Haight takes great pride in his play in his own just as much when it comes to offence. Williamson compares the forward to another top NHL prospect he coached in junior in current New York Rangers forward Ryan Strome.
“I was told from a very young age that defence is just as, if not more important, than offence, because good defence is going to lead to opportunity,” said the five-foot-10, 174- pound forward. “I take a lot of pride in developing my two-way game as a centreman and I think versatility and adaptability as a player are huge assets as far as striving for that pro career.
“Having the ability to do that and having details dialled in I think it’s a way to get there as quick as you can. You can develop from there, and yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty important thing to have.”
Haight’s game really took off in the second half. He scored goals in five straight games in late January and then capped off his season with a strong finish in the playoffs where he finished second in team scoring with a goal and five points in six games.
The young forward took his game to another level.
“I thought he really did,” said Williamson. “It was a typical rookie season for a good player. He was a little bit too safe and trying to be perfect early and then he got injured and when he got back from the injury it freed him up and he showed at times to be a dominant player and how well he played away from the puck.
“Even in the playoffs, I thought he played outstanding against a real tough Mississauga team. He scored a big goal for us in that series too. That (missed pandemic) year hurt him, like it did everybody, but I thought he responded really well. He kept wanting to learn, kept wanting to get better and I just think that’s going to continue for him.”
Haight admits he felt much more comfortable in the second half of the season. That didn’t go unnoticed by scouts.
“My second half, I think, was my strongest and I can remember that stretch,” he said. “I was confident, I was playing well within the team. I think I carried that throughout playoffs as well.
“As for scouts watching, it’s always been, for me, work at my game, continue to push and try to get better in every way I can. You can’t really control the outcome, you can just control effort, attitude and just push yourself to be the best you can.”
While he grew up a fan of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar centre Sidney Crosby and followed the Toronto Maple Leafs, Haight believes it’s an honour no matter what NHL organization calls out his name.
“Personally, I don’t think it matters where I go,” said Haight, who is grateful for the trainers at Total Package Hockey in London for the work they have done with him. “For me, I just want to develop as a player and as a person and play at the pro level and carry the career for myself.”
The NHL Entry Draft starts at 7 p.m. with the first round on Thursday night and Rounds 2-7 will start Friday at 11 a.m.
banner image: Terry Wilson/OHL Images