The decision: Looking at how Brett Budgell decided to join the Charlottetown Islanders
Brett Budgell is used to making split-second decisions with the puck on his stick, but when it came to the next four years of his hockey career he wanted to take it slow and methodical.
“It’s definitely tough to know (what to do) because it affects your whole life, what path you do choose,” the Charlottetown Islanders rookie forward said prior to a recent practice. “I think it’s really important to investigate all your options, and that’s certainly what I did in the first half of the season.”
The Islanders drafted the 16-year-old Paradise, N.L., native in the 2017 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft knowing there were no guarantees he would choose the major junior route. The Isles scooped up the first-round talent early in the second round and then started the pursuit of selling the youngster on the team, city, province and league.
They got him to training camp in August, but he left after 48 hours in order to protect his NCAA eligibility – something the team knew was a possibility all along.
The Islanders remained keenly interested in having the youngster in the lineup and finally landed him on New Year’s Day.
Recently Brett, his parents Todd and Gina, as well as Islanders head coach and general manager Jim Hulton spoke with The Guardian to give a better sense of the process and the stars that aligned to allow Brett to become an Islander.
After putting up 29 goals and 33 assists for 62 points in 23 games in bantam AAA in St. John’s, N.L., the Budgells looked at their options of where Brett could play and continue to develop.
After Brett was named the MVP of the bantam AAA Atlantics, a team in London, Ont., got Hockey Canada approval to add him to its roster and the 15-year-old moved halfway across the country.
“It was much easier, from a parent’s perspective, to let him go, knowing he was with my sister, with family,” Gina explained.
Brett fit in with his new team and community. He became best buddies with Ryan Suzuki, who would become the top pick in the Ontario Hockey League by the Barrie Colts.
While in Ontario, Brett received interest from upwards of 20 NCAA schools and all of the QMJHL squads.
The Islanders had him in their top-10 players available for the draft. When he was there at 25, the management team, with the support from ownership, decided it was worth the risk.
“We knew when we took Brett it was going to be a lengthy process,” Hulton said. “Both himself and his family were very honest.”
Budgell came to training camp in August and impressed with his skill, but after two days he was gone.
“It’s a huge decision,” Gina said. “You’re asked to make a decision that’s going to affect the rest of your life. For Brett, he’s a very methodical person, and his decisions are very well thought out, so for him he couldn’t, with all his heart, commit 100 per cent to Charlottetown at that time because he wasn’t sure.”
The family explored the British Columbia Hockey League but couldn’t get the required approvals for him to play there this season. They then went to Chicago of the United States Hockey League.
He played 14 games for the Steel, but the coaching staff the family had dealt with initially had taken other positions before the season started. Brett had two goals and two assists in 14 games.
Brett attended the world under-17 hockey challenge in November in British Columbia and got to talk with players following different avenues.
“I have friends that are going the NCAA route and I have friends that are in the CHL, so it’s cool to hear everyone’s story and why they chose what they chose,” Brett said.
Budgell was offered at least a dozen scholarships from Division 1 schools and made numerous campus visits to explore his options.
Throughout the fall, Hulton or Islanders director of player personnel Trevor Birt stayed in touch with Brett and played the delicate balance of showing they were interested without being a burden on the youngster.
With Brett home for the holidays, the Islanders reached out again.
Things started to heat up as the two sides appeared to be getting closer.
“At the end of the day I felt this was the best place for my development,” Brett said.
One of the key elements for the Budgell family was to ensure the education concerns were met for the present and the future.
Gina said Hulton’s wife, Kristina, was a phenomenal resource for the family, presenting options for Brett to fulfil his educational needs.
Brett had attended Blyth Academy, a private school in London, Ont., for Grade 10. They offer online schooling which Brett has now enrolled in.
“Next year, he will graduate from Blyth in London and be able to graduate with all of his Ontario friends,” Gina said.
“He’s very, very driven,” Jim said. “That’s why he’s so good on the ice. But academically, off the ice, he’s a very, very strong student, so we had to make sure we could meet the needs for the high school requirements as well.”
Todd said they felt Charlottetown was the best place for Brett to develop. He said major junior is not the end game for teenagers – they want to play pro hockey.
“For a small-market team, they have rock stars here,” he said. “Is there anybody better than Kevin Elliott as a trainer? Anybody more dedicated than Spider and these guys? Jim has coached in the NHL, he’s been everywhere. . .
“For a small market team to have what they have and to be able to offer that to young kids is phenomenal.”
With the decision made, Brett has been able to just play hockey. The six-foot, 180-pound forward had 10 goals and 10 assists in his first 27 games heading into Friday’s contest in Sydney, N.S., against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “All the guys are great. We have a really tight locker room.”
The family recently visited P.E.I. and watched their son play at the Eastlink Centre.
“It’s a great feeling to be here and actually see him play in person and see how he’s fit in with the team,” Gina said, noting he has “phenomenal” billets. “He seems happy and really enjoying it.”
The Islanders have also learned lessons going through the process. Hulton said it has reviewed its processes to ensure they are not putting the franchise at risk by taking too many gambles. With NCAA offers seemingly becoming more of an option for Canadian kids, the Isles have to be ready as they sit down at the draft table.
“This one worked out, but it could have easily been a disaster had it not,” Hulton said.
He said had the Islanders been drafting 15th overall, they probably couldn’t have risked the gamble.
There were numerous dominos that had to fall into place for Budgell to become an Islander, including the BCHL not being an option, the staffing changes in Chicago and the educational solutions being identified in Charlottetown.
“They certainly did,” Hulton said. “You’re asking for a lot of pieces to fall into place, but they did. It just felt like it was meant to be for him to be here in Charlottetown.”
After playing for three teams in three leagues in two countries in two years, Budgell has stability.
“He’s an Islander and this is where . . . he’s going to play his Q career,” Gina said.