Red Deer Rebels forward Brandon Hagel has been a frustrated bystander to the team’s struggles over the past six weeks.
The 19-year-old WHL veteran of 167 regular season games, was sidelined with a hand injury from Dec. 1 to Jan. 12, the first major setback in his career.
He said it’s been tough to manage, especially while the team hasn’t been able to collect many victories in his absence.
“Just interacting with the boys and being around the boys,” said Hagel. “You can’t pout about it, but your leadership has to be through the roof, and if it’s not, you’re not going to be ready to come back.”
Hagel made his return Jan. 12, registering one assist in the process. He followed that up with another assist the next day, but explained there was some rust to shake off.
“Obviously there’s going to be some ups and downs. Six weeks is a long time, but I’m happy to be back and by this weekend, there’s no excuses anymore,” Hagel said.
“Little bit of rust, now a full week of practice is going to help.”
In his absence, the Rebels have made a transformation on the ice, turning into one of the youngest teams in the WHL with an average age of 17.6. Especially on forward, the Rebels are relatively inexperienced, something Hagel was on the other side of when he started his career.
In his first season in the WHL as a 17-year-old, the Morinville native joined a Rebels squad set to host the Memorial Cup later that year.
Hagel had 47 points in 72 games that season and another 10 in 17 games in the playoffs. He played in the Memorial Cup, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
From there, the sky was the limit for the young winger.
He was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry draft and played a dynamic role with the Rebels last year registering 71 points in 65 games and another eight points in seven playoff contests.
In his third season, the left winger was having a solid first half before the injury. He had 23 points in 27 games.
In his return, Hagel will need to be a major piece of the offensive puzzle, both for his own gain and his team. He expects to draw on his early WHL experience to lead the young players but knows he also needs to be a key contributor offensively as well.
“They’re tremendous hockey players, they’re all smart, and they all know what’s going on. I played on two pretty experienced hockey teams in the past two years and having these young guys, it’s a new opportunity for me to pick up my leadership a little bit,” Hagel said.
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said the veteran will need to find another gear and be a leader in the second half.
“He’s a 19-year-old player in his third year now, our expectations on him are high. We need him to be a really good hockey player for us, which he was before he got hurt,” Sutter said.
“He was really starting to come around before he got hurt. I thought on the weekend, I’m not sure you can expect anything more than the way he was.”
Sutter said Hagel is looking at trying to get an NHL contract, a pro contract and other scenarios. If that doesn’t work out perhaps getting an opportunity to go back in the draft, said Sutter.
“There’s a lot of scenarios there that Brandon needs to have a real strong second half,” he said.