WINNIPEG — Brandon Hagel got a tough dose of the business side of the game long before he had even skated in his first professional game.
Chosen in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres, Hagel was never signed, was passed over in the 2018 NHL Draft and ended up returning to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League for his overage season.
It was a long, hard road but that didn’t prevent Hagel from accomplishing his goal of reaching the NHL.
After producing 41 goals and 102 points as a 20 year old, Hagel joined the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League for an eight-game audition at the end of the 2018-19 season.
A strong start with the IceHogs that fall led to the Chicago Blackhawks inking Hagel to a three-year, entry-level deal in late October 2018.
In March 2019, Hagel made his NHL debut against the San Jose Sharks and once the shortened season finally began in January 2020, he’d quickly establish himself as an NHL regular.
When asked about his journey, Hagel cites being passed over in the WHL Bantam Draft as his first opportunity to try and turn a perceived negative into a positive.
“It was tough. But I’ve been through it a little bit,” said Hagel, who was acquired by the Tampa Bay Lightning along with fourth round picks in 2022 and 2024 last March from the Blackhawks for forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk and first round picks in 2023 and 2024. “You can either take two steps or two steps forward and I just kept pushing and trying to live out my dream. I’m glad it happened in Chicago. They gave me the opportunity and I wouldn’t change the world for what happened because it taught me a lot.
“I try to work hard every day because I know every year, there is someone trying to come and take your job.”
It was a steep price for Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois to pay, but this wasn’t an impulse buy for a team seeking a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Along with the emergence of Hagel’s game, he brought cost certainty on a deal that runs through the 2023-24 season at the bargain price of $1.5 million per annum.
Plus, he’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of it.
But this wasn’t just about team control for a team with plenty of high-priced talent that is delivering. There was a belief that Hagel was just scratching the surface.
There was definitely a transition phase for Hagel after his arrival but it didn’t take long to see why the Lightning had captured consecutive Stanley Cups.
“Obviously, I didn’t think I was going to get traded, but when I found out it was Tampa, you can’t complain. You’re coming to a team that has been competitive for so long and there was no better way for me to be able to learn from these guys who have won Stanley Cups,” said Hagel, who has 15 goals and 31 points in 38 games this season. “They’ve had long years, long seasons together. It’s such a close group and a group that has leaders all around this dressing room. Everyone has a voice and that’s what makes us so close. Obviously this team knows how to win.
“I’ve gotten so much more comfortable with the city, living in a house that’s mine, with my own furniture and stuff like that. Little things like that. It’s just a good spot for me.”
When the subject of Hagel’s strong start was raised after the morning skate on Friday, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper smiled and couldn’t resist an opportunity to show his self-deprecating sense of humour.
“I don’t know, the coach probably gave him a chance, so that’s probably helped him,” said Cooper. “It’s different from last year, when we had (Ondrej) Palat kind of solidified on that line and the way the playoffs went, he came into the role with us as a checker and he was outstanding at it.”
During the Lightning run to the Stanley Cup final, Hagel skated mostly alongside Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, drawing most of the toughest matchups available.
It was a change of pace for Hagel after he was used in more of an offensive role with the Blackhawks prior to the trade.
While he hasn’t abandoned his defensive responsibilities, Hagel is flourishing with the Lightning on a unit with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
“Cirelli, Killorn, and Hagel shut down almost everybody in the playoffs last year. But, with the departure of Palat, we’re looking for somebody that can fit in on that line,” said Cooper. “Hagel’s done an outstanding job, and you forget some of the guys he played with in Chicago and the numbers he was putting up. I’ve got to tip my hat to (him) for finding and excelling in the role he was in last year, and now in completely different circumstances.
“I know he’s playing with two fabulous players, but still, he’s a big part of that line. And so, just kind of the range in his game has been excellent, and he’s a gamer. So, he’s been a great fit for us.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos isn’t surprised to see Hagel elevate his game after getting settled into a new environment and finding his comfort zone.
“It’s tough. A lot of people forget the adjustment that comes with getting traded, especially mid-season and trying to find a new norm in a role. It takes time,” said Stamkos. “He played extremely well for us. He was in a different role for us last year. This year, he gets the chance to play with Point and (Kucherov) and you try to run with that opportunity as soon as you get it and he’s done that.
“Listen, not everyone can play with those guys. You need a good mix of hockey smarts and offensive skill, but you need a little bit of that grind in your game and (Hagel) is willing to do that, utilizing his speed, his tenacity on the forecheck. I think he leads the league in takeaways, so that’s the kind of guy that can get those guys the puck and then know where to go.”
2,600 AND COUNTING
Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness hitting another impressive milestone on Friday night doesn’t qualify as breaking news, but his longevity continues to impress those around the league, especially folks that he’s worked with.
Bowness was behind the bench for Game No. 2,600 as a head coach, associate or assistant on Friday night against the Lightning and it’s not just the high number that catches people’s attention.
“I remember when he was with us he hit 2,000. That was, wow, good for Bones. That’s a lot of games. He deserves it,” said Cooper. “The guy has a passion for the game and a love for the game. The last 30, 40 years he’s been involved in this game, that’s one thing that’s never left him is passion. And that’s why he’s still around today, and excelling at what he does. So it’s impressive. Heck of a guy.”
Having Bowness on his staff as an associate coach helped pave the way for Cooper to become the league’s longest-tenured bench boss.
“Well, one thing, when I came, I was brand new, I wasn’t a rookie coach, obviously, but I was a rookie to the NHL, and so I think it can’t go unnoticed, how having a veteran assistant helped me just acclimate to the league,” said Cooper. “And we had great success together and he was a huge part of that. He knows the game inside out, but he knows the league really well. If I was getting a little lost or not understanding what was going on, Bones was there for me and he really kind of helped kind of pave my way in learning the NHL.”
Stamkos shared some thoughts on the contributions Bowness made during five seasons, from 2013-14 through 2017-18.
“First and foremost, just an unbelievable person and his passion for the game is something that really shines through in why he’s been around so long and why he’s been as successful as he has,” said Stamkos. “Probably not to anyone’s surprise that he’s had a great start here in Winnipeg. He’ll be the first one to the rink, the last one to leave, he puts in the work and for someone to do it as long as he has, it clearly shows the love that he has for the game.
“He was great for us when he was here and was one of those guys that you really wanted to go out there and win for. Probably one of the regrets we have here in Tampa was not being able to win with Bones behind the bench.”
When a congratulatory message was shown on the scoreboard, the crowd rose to its feet in appreciation and when the camera found Bowness, he acknowledged them with a smile and a quick wave.
Earlier in the day, Bowness made it clear his focus was on the game at hand, but when asked a follow up question about what keeps him going, he provided a glimpse of why he’s been able to stick around as long as he has.
“I love the game, man. I love the game. That’s it. I just have a passion for the game. I know I’m not the smartest coach. I never try to be. I try and be the best I can be every day. But it’s the love of the game. I still love the game. I still love everything about it. I love the practices. I love dealing with the players. I love seeing the players get better. I love seeing the team get better. I just love the game. That’s what’s driven me… I know I’m not the smartest coach out there, but man, I love the game as much as anyone.
“The losses get tougher as you get older, too. You take them a little more personal. It’s just a matter of coming to the rink every day and (to) love being here. I’ve never had to do anything else because I never had a Plan B. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with a Plan B. It was hockey or nothing. Again, I’m just very fortunate, very blessed to stay in the league this long. Every day is a blessing here and I never once have taken it for granted. And I never will, until the day I retire. I still love it, and we’re going to keep kicking.”
SHARP DRESSED MEN
Full marks to both the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins for leaning into the spirit of playing the Winter Classic at Fenway Park.
Absolutely loved the old school baseball unis worn by both teams participating in this particular outdoor game, embracing the full baseball experience was a smart call – capped by Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark rocking the look on the podium for the post-game press conference.
Some folks are suffering from outdoor game fatigue, believing that multiple games a season make them less special.
Having covered two editions of the Heritage Classic — one in Winnipeg and the other in Regina — I say keep them coming.
The people in those respective markets — and those who travel to be part of the event — enjoy them thoroughly.
It’s also a nice change of pace for the players.
Sticking with the outdoor theme, it’s an excellent choice to have the league’s two newest franchises — the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights — take centre stage in the 2024 Winter Classic at the home of the Seattle Mariners.
I was fortunate to cover the 2001 MLB All-Star game at that park in the early stages of Ichiro-mania and you can be sure that the city is going to put on an excellent show.
Please ensure Ken Griffey Jr. is involved and don’t be surprised to see the Kraken sporting ball caps backward instead of toques or going bucket-less for that pre-game warm-up as an ode to the Hall of Famer.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will go head-to-head in the 2023 Heritage Classic next October and it will be interesting to see if those two heated rivals bring any interesting wrinkles to their respective wardrobes after checking out what the Bruins and Penguins brought to the table.
“We’ll see what we have in store,” said Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin, who attended the first Winter Classic played at Fenway Park and also played in a game there when he was in high school. “That was pretty cool, though.”
There’s no such thing as a must-win game for an NHL team in January, February or usually even March. But the rally from 2-0 down by the Colorado Avalanche over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night seemed like something the defending Stanley Cup champions might be able to build on.
The injuries the Avalanche have been working through have been well documented, but they got goals from Nathan MacKinnon on an end to end rush, Brad Hunt during a four-on-four situation and then a remarkable OT winner from Cale Makar to complete the comeback.
Instead of dropping a sixth consecutive game and feeling frustrated, the Avalanche stopped the losing skid and pulled within two points of the Oilers in the race for the second wild card berth (while holding three games in hand).
MacKinnon was a force throughout the contest, recording 11 shots on goal and 16 shot attempts. Makar took 31 shifts for 33:09 of ice time, finishing with two shots on goal and seven shot attempts.
Not lost in the offensive outburst during the final period and change was the stellar play of Avalanche goalie Alexandar Georgiev. The Bulgarian-born Russian made his 11th consecutive start and finished with 28 saves.
Even with the Avalanche currently below the playoff line, any questions about the goaltending have been answered by Georgiev, who is proving he can handle the load of a No. 1 goalie.
He’s up to 29 games played, which is just five shy of his career-high of 34, set with the New York Rangers during the 2019-20 campaign, so the next challenge will be sustaining his level of play during the stretch run.
• Oilers forward Zach Hyman scored twice on Saturday to reach 20 goals for the fourth time in his career. The energetic winger has 47 goals and 99 points in 116 regular season games since inking that seven-year, $38.5 million deal in July of 2021. With 20 goals and 44 points in 40 games this season, Hyman is on pace to easily exceed his career-highs for goals (27), assists (27) and points (54). Hyman also chipped in 11 goals and 16 points in 16 playoff games last spring as the Oilers reached the Western Conference final.
• Staying with the Oilers, thought the call by Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft to call timeout to rest his top power play unit when a 13-second two-man advantage presented itself during the second period was a wise call. That’s not a lot of time for most teams to make something happen, but the Oilers have the top power play in the NHL and they had an opportunity to extend the lead to 3-0 in a game where they were getting outplayed at even strength. The Oilers won the draw in the offensive zone and generated a quick scramble in front but were unable to convert on either of the penalties, finishing the contest 2-for-5.
• Sabres blueliner Rasmus Dahlin continued his impressive season by notching a five-point night in a 6-5 OT win over the Minnesota Wild. The offensive outburst helped Dahlin (43 goals, 204 points) become the second-fastest defenceman in franchise history (313 games) to hit the 200-point mark, trailing only Phil Housley (212 games). The Sabres have an 8-2 record in the past 10 games and trail the New York Islanders by only four points in the chase for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference while holding four games in hand. The most surprising stat about the Sabres is that they lead the NHL in goals per game (4.00), with the league-leading Boston Bruins sitting second (3.77)
• The Kraken are third in that category (3.66) and they’re on top of another one, becoming the first NHL team to hit eight goals in a game for a third time this season after an 8-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Kraken centre Matty Beniers has scored a goal in three consecutive games and became the first rookie to reach 30 points this season. He currently leads that race by four points over Anaheim Ducks forward Mason MacTavish, who has recorded three goals and six points during his past two games
• Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Kirill Marchenko had an afternoon to remember on Saturday, notching his first NHL hat trick and adding a shootout marker in a 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchenko is just the sixth Blue Jackets rookie to score three goals in a game, joining Nikita Filatov, Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cole Sillinger.