[Team Photographer Larry Brunt sat down with Spokane Chiefs forward Hudson Elynuik just before the end of the 2016-17 regular season to discuss his path to the WHL, his experiences so far and his goals for the future. Be sure to follow Larry on Instagram (@larry.brunt) for Chiefs images and visit his website at larrybrunt.com.]
When you hear that Hudson Elynuik’s father played for nine years and scored over 150 goals in the NHL, you might get the idea that Hudson had an easy path into hockey.
Surprisingly, Hudson wasn’t one of those NHL locker room kids, getting ice time after practice on NHL rinks and hanging around the players. His father, Pat, was the eighth overall pick in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, selected by Winnipeg. But he retired the year Hudson was born, so Hudson’s experience of his dad’s career consists mostly of looking at highlights of grainy TV footage.
Instead, Elynuik credits his success to “the drive I’ve always had, ever since I was little, to make it to the NHL.” He describes it as the motivation “to keep pushing forward, to battle adversity in your career. There are definitely going to be ups and downs,” he adds, “It’s never just smoothing sailing. You just battle those challenges and learn from them and become a better person.”
Elynuik began skating at two years old. “I just loved it,” he says. His father often coached him as a young player, emphasizing accountability. “He was hard on me,” he remembers, “but at the same time (he) kept things positive, so it’s a mixture of both.” He experienced some adversity right away in the form of his two older brothers, who like older brothers everywhere, didn’t go easy on their youngest sibling.
Hudson’s oldest brother, Campbell, was a particularly physical player. Five years Hudson’s elder, Campbell had seen his father play in the NHL and got to see the NHL experience firsthand. He went on to play in the WHL, including a stint with the division-rival Everett Silvertips, racking up 277 penalty minutes in 131 games to go with eight goals. The middle Elynuik boy, Jakson, is two years older than Hudson and also played competitive hockey, reaching as high as the Junior-A level.
In retrospect, Elynuik appreciates playing against his older brothers, noting that it helped him grow up quicker and helped keep him humble. “I was always a bit of an underdog,” he says. “I always played on good teams where there were better players than me, and it made me have more fire to being a better player and find things to improve in my game.”
Elynuik was chosen in the third round, 60th overall, in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft by the Kootenay ICE. He had barely settled in to his new home in Cranbrook, playing 35 games for the ICE, when he was traded to the Chiefs in December of 2013, just months after his 16th birthday. He finished his rookie year with three goals and eight assists.
While players learn to be prepared for roster moves at the WHL level, they can happen fast for a teenager away from home, in a different country and at a high school where he didn’t know anyone. “I just kind of sat there quietly,” Elynuik recalls. He also remembers going onto the ice in front of 9,000 fans at Spokane Arena for the first time. “I was pretty nervous.”
The veterans on that Chiefs team helped. Overage forwards Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani did their best to make Elynuik feel at home, and that helped him improve his performance on the ice. It didn’t take long for bonds to form. “When we go on those 10-day road trips, 14-day road trips to Saskatchewan, you definitely get extremely close. You’re with each other every day, all the time. Those trips make us stronger as a group.” His teammates became a second family, with a new set of brothers to compete with.
Injuries limited Elynuik to 27 games during the 2014-15 season, when he scored two goals and added six assists. But, as Elynuik knows, “You can’t teach size,” and at 6-foot-5 inches with puck handling skills, he attracted the attention of scouts.
Entering the 2015-16, season as an 18-year-old NHL draft prospect due to his late October birthday, Elynuik was ranked as the no. 122 North American skater available by NHL Central Scouting. But Elynuik caught fire in January, putting together a 10-game point streak and points in 17 of 20 games, ultimately finishing with 44 points (including 19 goals) in 56 games. By the end of the season, he had climbed to the 68th on the same Central Scouting list.
On draft night, he surrounded himself with his family and friends – the people who helped get him there – at their home near Calgary. His parents and brothers were there, of course, but also some of his hockey family, like defenseman Ben Thomas, with whom he played while growing up in Calgary (Thomas now plays for the Syracuse Crunch in the Tampa Bay Lightning system) and current Chiefs captain Tyson Helgesen. Elynuik’s dad was closest to the TV and heard his son’s name. He told everyone to listen up and the all eyes fixated on the television screen. Elynuik had just been drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes with the 74 pick. “My name showed up on the screen,” he remembers. “It was an unbelievable feeling.” The first thing he did was hug his mom and dad.
Asked if he ever gives his brothers a hard time now that he has accomplished something they didn’t – being an NHL draft pick – Hudson laughs as if it never occurred to him. “I can’t really answer that. They just chose different ways to go. I think we’re all pretty good hockey players.”
He recognizes there is still a long way to go, and “a lot more work to be done,” but Elynuik considers himself fortunate to have the support of his family and friends. “My mom and dad are my biggest fans and have done everything for me, and my brothers have been there all the way. And my friends. The support I’ve had is just tremendous. I’m really grateful for it.”
But, as Elynuik mentioned, hockey comes with ups and downs. After the same summer during which he was drafted to the NHL, he learned that his best friend on the Chiefs, Austrian forward Dominic Zwerger, had been traded. “We were linemates. We were extremely close. We had been here from the beginning,” he says. “I was pretty devastated. But that’s business. That’s part of hockey. We’ll stay in touch forever,” he added.
Navigating adversity is something Elynuik continues to work on, which might lead to other misconceptions. Fans might see Elynuik laughing on the ice and “chirping” with opponents and might wonder if he is completely focused or invested in the game. But that’s part of an intentional strategy on Hudson’s part to stay loose, he says, to rein in his intensity and help him be more consistent.
“When you’re going out there and you make a mistake or do something wrong, you get hard on yourself. Sometimes I’m a little too hard on myself, and that can definitely creep into my game in a negative way.” So he works at staying calm and being positive, and works on always trying to “learn from my mistakes instead of dwell on them.”
One thing that helps is saying away from social media. “It’s not the best for you, either negative or positive,” he wisely notes. “If you see the really positive stuff, maybe you get a little too comfortable,” he continues, adding that negative comments can be easy to dwell on if you’re not careful. “I try not to get too worked up. I like being calm and relaxed. I feel that helps my game, staying positive and being in a loose, calm mindset.”
He did his best to take that mindset to the Hurricanes’ development camp this past summer, but he admitted that at times he couldn’t help but be overwhelmed. “You go into the locker room and see your nameplate above your stall and your jersey with your name on it. You look around and see the pictures of the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup and all the legends that have played there.”
He followed that experience with a 73-point campaign for the Chiefs during the 2016-17 season, posting career highs in just about every statistical category, including goals (29), assists (44) and games played (64).
Elynuik remembers going out onto the NHL sheet of ice for the first time, suited up in a Hurricanes jersey with his name on the back, and thinking about all the 6 a.m. practices, all the times he was pushed around on the ice by his older brothers, all the sacrifices his parents made, and that drive he had from the beginning. He thought, “wow, it’s finally here.”
“It was extremely eye-opening,” he describes. He played against Stanley Cup winner Jordan Staal and NHL All-Stars Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. “The NHL is a competitive place. There are fathers fighting for their jobs to put food on the table. There are 35-year olds (playing for a living), and I’m only 19. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
Well, Elynuik is no stranger to challenges.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview took place just before the end of the Chiefs’ regular season. Elynuik has since joined the Charlotte Checkers (AHL affiliate of the Hurricanes) on an amateur tryout basis, to be around the team for the remainder of their season. Details here.]