For a short time, at least, Stephen Hak wondered if his Western Hockey League career was over before it started.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes saw Hak as a candidate to crack their roster this season, that is until the club drafted Swedish defenceman Albin Blomqvist in June’s CHL import draft and dropped the 17-year-old rearguard from their 50-man protected list.
Fortunately for Hak, Red Deer Rebels Randy Peterson saw plenty of potential in the Winnipeg native and listed him in July. Suddenly, his WHL dream was alive and well.
“I was pretty excited to hear from the Rebels because I didn’t think I’d be able to play in the WHL (after being dropped by Lethbridge). Red Deer gave me another chance and I think I’ve taken advantage of it,” said Hak, who was on the ‘Canes’ list for two years.
The newcomer impressed the Rebels coaching staff through training camp and the preseason, ultimately earning himself a spot on the club despite his underdog status as an undrafted player.
“He came in and surprised us a bit in training camp. We felt he was ahead of some of the ‘94s we had on our list and basically he just played himself into contention,” said Rebels general manager/head coach Jesse Wallin.
Indeed, Hak outshone the likes of 17-year-old blueline prospects Danys Chartrand, David Heath and Davin Stener through training camp and then continued to progress through the Rebels’ six-game preseason run.
“It’s been quite a ride so far, a lot of fun,” said Hak, who has appeared in only one of Red Deer’s four regular-season outings to date but could see more ice time in the near future due to the Wednesday deal that sent defenceman Brad Deagle to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The Red Deer rookie came into training camp with an advantage over the likes of Chartrand and Heath, who played at the midget AAA level last winter while Hak was skating with the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Junior League.
“The MJHL experience helped me move up to the WHL,” said Hak. “Suddenly the leap wasn’t as big. There’s a lot of huge players in the MJHL, it’s kind of a scary league.”
Still, there were adjustments to be made. Hak noticed the difference in calibre — between major junior and junior A — even during the preseason.
“At first the speed was a huge difference, but after a few weeks I got used to it and started keeping up with everyone else,” he said.
As a 16-year-old junior A rookie, Hak seldom played in front of more than 500 fans during the 2010-11 campaign.
He made his WHL regular-season debut last Friday at the 15,000-seat Credit Union Place in Saskatoon.
“It’s crazy, it makes you feel so excited. It’s like you’re playing in an NHL barn, almost,” he said.
While the six-foot, 176-pound Hak has a strong stride and makes a good first pass coming out of the defensive zone, he’s lacking in physical power.
“I have to gain some upper-body strength so I can push guys away from the front of the net and develop a better shot,” he admitted.
Added Wallin: “He’s a very good skater who moves the puck well and is pretty intelligent.
‘The biggest with him is he just has to get stronger.
“He has to get stronger physically where he can finish his checks and ride his man off, and also so he can be stronger on the puck, making harder passes and getting the puck away with some juice on it.
“But he’s shown intelligence and certainly his skating ability is something you like to see in a defenceman.”