Heading in to the 2016-2017 season, the Charlottetown Islanders had a team full of skill. Filip Chlapik, Kameron Kielly, Mitchell Balmas, and Jake Coughler anchored a skilled forward group while Cody Donaghey and Guillaume Brisebois were two of the top defenders in the QMJHL.
One thing the group was missing was some toughness. Islanders head coach and general manager Jim Hulton utilized his resources in Ontario to look for the right fit. It turns out that one of his scouts, Rob Ridgley, had someone for him. A raw defenseman who bounced between Jr. B and Jr. A in Kingston named Hunter Drew.
“Rob had known Hunter for a few years and thought he was intriguing because of his size and thought he was showing signs of a late bloomer, plus he had a toughness that’s become a rare commodity in today’s game.” Hulton said. “He was coming out this way to try out for the Amherst Ramblers in Jr. A and we encouraged him to come to camp.”
Drew remembered the conversation. “Rob approached me with Jim’s number and told me to call him. I gave him a call and he said ‘Come to camp. Nothing is guaranteed; work hard and see what happens’.”
“He came to camp and had a real good showing. We thought because of his size and physical play he brought an element that we didn’t have on our team.” added Hulton. “Safe to say that none of had envisioned his career unfolding the way it has, and it’s been a wonderful surprise.”
Hunter Drew would go on to make a deep lineup in a small role. Before he became the star defenseman that fans know today, Drew was a rookie learning the ropes from some seasoned veterans in a completely new town. In his first season, Drew says he’d often listen and watch what those leaders were doing to try and better himself, particularly Kameron Kielly.
“He was a local kid who had been around for a while, and he showed me a lot about how real junior hockey works.” said Drew. “A lot of the older guys on the team showed me both on and off the ice how to be a pro, how to act, and it’s something that I worked on every day. Just to see how guys like that operate was huge for me.”
That season, the Islanders were expected to be a deep team and make a lengthy playoff run and acted as such; Hulton made some aggressive moves at the trade deadline, acquiring big names like Francois Beauchemin, Nicolas Meloche, and Alex Dostie. On top of that, Daniel Sprong returned from injury. Drew was asked to fulfill a number of roles that season, even as far as playing a little bit of forward. It was those kinds of trials and tribulations that Hulton believes helped Hunter become the player he is today.
“He filled a void for us with size and toughness in his first year, but saw limited ice time,” said Hulton. “He really handled it in the right way; he took the positives out of the situation, worked to make himself a better player that summer, and took off from there.”
Drew took many lessons from his rookie year, but it was how the senior members of their team conducted themselves that helped him decide what he wanted out of his career.
“I saw guys like Guillaume Brisebois, Nicolas Meloche, and Carl Neill get pro opportunities at the end of the season,” said Drew. “Seeing how they worked and how they wanted to get better flipped a switch for me and helped me realize that I wanted to be like them.”
“I didn’t want to be the guy that wasn’t playing hockey at 21 years-old. I wanted to be the guy who was planning for the next step, who was buying a house in the big city with my teammates. That motivated me to want to do better.”
“He went home between Year One and Year Two and aced the summer,” said Hulton. “He got himself in really good shape, and continued to work on his skating, and now we’re seeing the results.”
Drew returned to Charlottetown to lead a new-look team in what many were considering a transition year. Nearly all of the veterans from the season before graduated to the pro ranks, leaving Drew, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, and Saku Vesterinen as the elder statesmen of the defense corps. Despite the perceived lack of talent, the Isles shocked many teams en route to a surprising ninth place finish in the standings that year.
“Having the expectations of being a poor team helped us. Fans, other teams, even the league kind of wrote us off from the beginning and that was fun for us, to go in to buildings and beat these teams and have people turn around and say ‘Wow, that’s not a bad hockey club’.” said Drew
“At the end of the day it didn’t matter to us who scored goals, who made the hits, who did the fighting. We all worked together to get where we did. We were one win away from the finals and I think the whole league would have been shocked if we made it to the finals.”
Individually, Drew put together an unimaginable second season. The bit player from the season previous was no more; he quietly developed in to a top defenseman on a surprising team, finishing the year with 39 points, second among Islanders defenders behind Joseph. Eventually, pro teams took notice. At the 2018 NHL Draft, the Anaheim Ducks selected Drew with the 178th pick of the draft.
“I was napping after an early-morning golf round and was woken up by my phone ringing,” said Drew on finding out he was a Duck. “When I got that call I was shaking from the shock. Jim gave me a call soon after and I couldn’t even put two words together to say thank you. He came to my house not long after to sit down and gave me a run-through of the process and said ‘it’s gonna be all right, you deserve this, you worked hard for it’. It was nice having that support.”
Drew attended the Ducks summer development camp and received an invite to the September rookie tournament and main training camp, where he impressed with his physical ability and offensive prowess. He says he learned lots from brushing shoulders with some of the biggest names in hockey, things that he brought with him to Charlottetown.
“Just seeing the pros in camp really helped me. Seeing how guys like Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry prepare, even for just a workout, is something that I wanted to try and bring back here. They have the same mindset going in to both practices and games, and that can help you be ready for any situation. I looked to guys like that, and how they took care of themselves.”
This season, Drew has built off his career performance by taking it to another level. He set career highs in goals, assists, and points. His 15 goals is among the top 5 defenders in all of the QMJHL. As the regular season draws to a close, Drew will finish 2nd among defenders in Islanders history in career goals and points. Having never lost sight of his physical game, Drew leads all players in Islanders history in penalty minutes.
Through it all, Drew says he hopes the story he’s written for himself inspires other players that find themselves in a position he once was.
“It shows players that are in the position that I was that nothing is impossible. It sounds cliche, but if you work for it, you’ll get it.” said Drew.
“Every day is a new opportunity. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, you just have to leave it in the past and not look too far ahead. Just work everyday and take every opportunity to get better, as a person or as a player. You never know what’s going to happen; we have a great coaching staff who will help the guys that want to work.”
Looking back at his QMJHL career, Drew struggled to summarize his time in Charlottetown, but eventually settled on one word.
“Grateful. I’m grateful to have this opportunity and to make the most of it.” said Drew. “I’ve met my best friends for life here. For those of us from Ontario and even Quebec, we’re a long way from home, but we’ve become a big family here. These past two seasons have been the closest teams I’ve ever played on.”
The players didn’t become Drew’s only family in Charlottetown. He says he’s thankful for the love and respect that his billets, the Davies, have shown him the past two seasons.
“My parents never had a worry about me when I moved out here thanks to Jeremy, Kelly, and Grayson.” said Drew. “That’s my family for eight months; when my parents come down all they talk about is how thankful they are I have such a good home. They’re always making sure I have a good meal and they’re always making me laugh.”
“Grayson in particular has become the little brother I’ve never had. It’s nice to do the teasing this time and not being on the other end of it.”
Finally, Hunter says his career wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Jim Hulton, Guy Girouard, and Brad Mackenzie.
“I wouldn’t be in Charlottetown if not for Jim giving me the opportunity. Once I got here, to have Guy and Brad work with me and show me the little things, like puck skills and working on my skating, it was a big thing.” explained Drew. “My first year, I wasn’t exactly the man on this team, but they worked with me everyday like I was. I can’t thank them enough for the career I have.”
Hulton says that as a coach, seeing the fruits of Drew’s labour has been extremely gratifying
“Hunter is going to be a story that we tell for years to come because of the path he took and how he handled some adversity.” said Hulton “It’s easy to talk the talk, it’s really difficult to put that to action, but he did. One of the rewarding parts of this job is watching young men fulfill their dreams of getting drafted and turning pro; we’re so happy to have seen Step One of Hunter’s dream.”
“His career has blossomed from a 6-7 defender in this league to a 1-2 guy. He’s pushing 50 points, he’s an NHL draft pick, and when you combine his size and skill with his confidence, the sky’s the limit.”