A fateful day in October following a Spokane Chiefs game changed Bear Hughes’ dreams.
Until that day, he never thought it was possible to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Hughes finished the season listed 150th for North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting list. That was an accomplishment for him.
“It was crazy to be compared to other draft eligible players around the league who were dominating and know that some of these guys would go in the first round and have a chance to play in the NHL next year,” he says.
Hughes says there was a lot of excitement knowing that it could happen, but at the same time he needed to keep focusing on the present and if it happened, it happened.
On October 7 it happened. The Washington Capitals chose him in the fifth round.
“I was with a friend when my phone just started blowing up with calls and messages, one of which was from the Washington Capitals,” wrote Hughes in an email. “The day of the draft I wasn’t even watching when my name was called. I treated it like any other day because I knew there was a possibility I would not be called and I didn’t have my heart set on it.”
Hughes spoke with the Capitals a couple of times leading up to the draft, but once he was selected, “it was really unbelievable.”
“Just the realization I was picked by an elite team, who has an unreal reputation and also superstars like Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie and so many others who we all idolize as kids made it hard to stop smiling,” says the Spokane Braves alum.
Growing up in Post Falls, Idaho, Hughes has idolized Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, who grew up in Spokane. Johnson is the local superstar Hughes started skating with when he was 11 and still does every off-season.
Bear Hughes in action against the Regina Pats in Spokane. KIJHL photo
“As the years progressed my role changed,” says Hughes. “At first I would just pass him pucks and get in his way, but now I am able to battle him in the corners or in the faceoff circle. He has taught me so much over the past couple summers, but the biggest thing about Tyler is his work ethic. He is always working and he never gives up on himself. For example, he wasn’t drafted and was always told he was too small to play in the NHL, but he believed in himself when no one else did, and now he has a Stanley Cup ring.”
Another person Hughes has learned so much from is his former KIJHL coach with the Braves, Mike Bay.
“Playing for the Braves under Mike Bay, I believe I improved the most out of any year so far, but even more important it was one of the most enjoyable times of my life,” he says. “We had an incredible group of guys and I was able to play with two of my best friends. Throughout the year I became much more confident in my abilities and made strides in all aspects of my games, but I especially learned how to be a gritty player, which is super important. The KI was the biggest developmental year of my hockey career so far and it will be one that I never forget.”
Hughes spent one season with the Braves in the KIJHL then made the jump to the Chiefs. He dreamed of playing for the local WHL club.
“Jumping into the WHL as an 18-year-old rookie from junior B is not a common path at all,” he says. “Going into the beginning of the year there was a lot of uncertainty and nerves, but I actually had a really good start. The WHL plays a bigger, faster and stronger game than I was used to in the KI, making it seem like I only had seconds to make decisions with the puck.”
Skating alongside very skilled players helped the transition to the faster pace game, as well as an unbelievable coaching staff. Hughes learned more in this last year of hockey than any season in his life and by Christmas, he realized confidence was the biggest determinant in how he would perform every night.
Following the season cut short because of the pandemic, Hughes says he continued to lift off the ice and skate in Coeur d’Alene, but there was not much to do other than wait for the draft. One thing he has learned the past couple years of playing is that mental toughness is probably the most important thing for an athlete.
“There are nights where you feel unstoppable and the puck just goes in and there are also nights, weeks or even months where you can’t get on the score sheet to save your life,” he says. “The most important thing is just make sure you are doing the little things right even when it seems like it’s not working and realize that you play for the team, not yourself.”
Physically, Hughes intends to get stronger so he is more dominant on the ice. Heading into his second season with the Chiefs, Hughes wants to be a leader and be a player the team relies on every night.
“I am super competitive, absolutely hate to lose and I think that with the group of guys we have coming back we have a chance to win the league,” says Hughes. “This year my goal is to help Spokane win a championship.”