You don’t have to look far in Red Deer to find fans of Brandon Hagel.
His former coach chief among them – he couldn’t be prouder of what the 22-year-old has accomplished with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.
“If any player needs an example of never say never and someone who just keeps going and pushing – his work ethic was over the top, second to none. He earned where he’s at right now. He earned that… I’m so proud of him,” said Rebels owner, president and GM Brent Sutter, who coached Hagel for five seasons in Red Deer.
Hagel just wrapped up his first NHL season and what a season it was. In 52 games, the former Red Deer Rebel player scored nine goals and added 15 assists, landing him ninth among NHL rookies in scoring.
“I’ve had a pretty good year I’d say. There’s definitely some things I can work on in the offseason. I’m excited to work on those as next year comes along. Overall, I just think it was a really good learning experience for me– just experiencing everything around the league,” he said ahead of the Blackhawks’ final regular-season game Monday.
“As much as this year was crazy, just being around the guys constantly – every single day basically and playing games every second night benefited me. You’re always in the mode, ready to play hockey and play games. I think that helped.”
Hagel’s offseason plans will start overseas in Latvia, as he will get a chance to represent Canada at the IIHF Men’s World Championships. Canada kicks off the tournament on May 21 against the host Latvians. It will be his first time playing for Canada at any level.
“He was our best player game in and game out,” Sutter said of Hagel’s final season in Red Deer.
“Chicago signs him, he goes in there, plays a bit in the American League at the end of that year, plays some the next year and two years later, he’s playing in the NHL and a very important part of their team. Now he gets named to the World Championship team.
“It says a lot about an individual who doesn’t give up, is pushing and moving forward and wants to make a difference every night – every shift.”
That’s a remarkable rise for a player, who two years ago went unsigned by the Buffalo Sabres – the team that drafted him in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft.
Sutter said the talented winger used that slight as motivation and it has powered him to new-found heights.
“Him and I had a long talk then, that summer he dialed in and came back and he was dominant in his 20-year-old season. One of the top players in our league. His motor didn’t stop. Every night he was a difference-maker. He was our best player game in and game out,” Sutter recalled.
Early in the 2019-20 WHL season, with Hagel on a tear, Chicago started calling and on Oct. 30, he signed a three-year entry-level deal.
When his WHL career ended, Hagel played eight games with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. He started the 2019-20 season in the AHL and after posting 31 points in 59 games, he made his NHL debut in the bubble last season.
In September 2020, the Blackhawks loaned the winger to Thurgau in the Swiss League where he put up 15 points in 14 games.
This season, he stepped into the Blackhawks lineup on Jan. 19 and never left.
He was a staple from there, playing anywhere from 15-19 minutes a night in Chicago over the course of this season.
“I’m just trying to learn and get better and just learn from these older guys and get a feel for the league. It’s not an easy league to play in and it’s not an easy league to get away with the little things,” he said.
Sutter added that Hagel’s commitment should be a lesson to all young players looking to take their game to the next level.
“If any player in our organization wants to see what determination is and what commitment and how driven you have to be, there’s a prime example,” Sutter said.