WALLA WALLA — Hunter Alden wants to do what few from the Pacific Northwest get to do: play hockey in the National Hockey League.
Alden, whose mother and father run the Walla Walla YWCA’s Ice Chalet and hockey program, has been skating since he was 3, playing travel hockey since he was 10, and now faces an incredibly crucial period of his life if he wants to play in the NHL.
And he’s only 14.
Over the next several months Alden, a center, will play in a series of tournaments and combines to attract attention from scouts for the United States Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
Then in May, both leagues will hold their drafts.
If Alden is drafted by a team from either league, he will then attend tryouts for those teams to try to make a final roster.
Because he is only 14, and will turn 15 in October, he will only be allowed to play in a limited amount of games until the year he turns 16.
Then, if he successfully navigates the draft process, he will leave his family to live with a host family to play hockey and attend school.
To prepare, Alden has practically lived on the ice.
He practices or skates every day (one of the luxuries of having an “in” at the Ice Chalet), plays in the Walla Walla Adult Hockey League, and travels to Wenatchee on weekends to play for the Wenatchee Junior Wild, a Bantam AAA team.
During the summer, he enters what his parents call the “camp season.”
While the ice is removed at the Ice Chalet, Alden travels around the region attending different camps, playing in different tournaments and playing at the Toyota Center in Kennewick — basically doing whatever he can to get on the ice.
It’s a busy lifestyle, and a lonely one.
But Alden is driven.
“I kind of have a daily routine,” Alden said. “I wake up, go to school, I go home, I do homework and then I come to the rink. There’s not really time for anything else.
“I can’t go hang out with friends,” he continued. “I’ve realized that, yeah, it kind of sucks, but I’d much rather (play hockey). I’d choose that over a life that’s kind of boring. I’d get sick of doing the regular thing every day.”
“I take a rest day every couple of months,” he said, laughing.
Living and breathing hockey and school doesn’t leave much time for friends outside of the sport.
And, although hockey is a quintessential team sport, Alden’s teammates on the Wild hail from all different parts of the state: Spokane, Seattle, Everett, etc.
His closest teammate lives in the Tri-Cities.
So, although success in playing for a WHL or USHL team will mean leaving home — essentially for good — at the tender age of 16, Alden is excited.
Yes, he will be leaving his parents Jodi and Nate, but he will be gaining a new family. His team.
In fact, his best experience with hockey so far has been when he was farthest away from home — a trip to the North American Prospect Hockey League district nationals in Colorado.
He lit up when recounting his experience.
“That’s probably the best hockey experience I’ve ever had,” Alden said. “You get so much more bonded and so close to your team, and it was only a week. It’s such a cool experience, and I want to be able to be with my team all week and be used to the guys and be around the guys.
“Not have a team — have a family.”
The position Alden plays, center, is essentially the quarterback of a hockey offense.
Or, as a Canadian might say, a quarterback is essentially the center of a football offense.
Either way, it’s a demanding position, both physically and mentally.
Mentally, one has to be sharp. Able to see the ice and, more importantly, think a play or two ahead.
That’s where chess comes in.
“I think his biggest trait is his head,” said his father Nate, who is an assistant coach for the Wild. “He understands the game. I actually teach these guys to play chess so that they have the ability to think two, three steps ahead.
“He is always on a different play,” Nate said. “He’s thinking about, ‘What’s going to happen if I do this?’ And he can think really quick. So as a coach, if he wasn’t my kid, he’d still be playing center.”
Clearly, however, hockey isn’t just a cerebral sport.
Physically, one has to be quick and agile, a good passer and puck handler, because the center runs the offense. A great pass means a great opportunity for a goal.
“You’ve got guys that are really fast, but don’t handle the puck so well,” Nate said. “You’ve got big hitters — guys that can separate the man from the puck and give the team chances to make plays.
“He’s one of those puck-control guys. He can get the puck in traffic and maintain it and set things up — he’s a playmaker. To us on this team, that is very important.”
But in the rough-and-rumble world of hockey, where some, if not many, pro players sport dentures because they’ve lost so many teeth, there’s another aspect to the physicality.
It’s the full-speed collisions known as checking, it’s the pucks flying at 90 miles per hour, caroming off sticks, face masks, and goal posts, and it’s unhesitantly blocking said pucks.
And, to the chagrin of some hockey fans, it’s fighting.
None of which bothers Alden, despite his slight stature at 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds.
“I love it,” Alden said of checking. “I love crushing people. It’s the point of sports.”
He’s no stranger to contact, as he’s been playing adult league hockey at the Ice Chalet since he was 8.
“Granted, they’re (adult-league players) not going to hit me with all their might,” Alden said, “but I’ve been used to checking since I was little.”
As to the fighting, Alden trains occasionally at the ZAP Boxing Club & Youth Center in Walla Walla.
“The reality of it is that when you get to the pro level, you have to be more aggressive,” Nate said. “Those players are hired for specific skills. Some of those skills mean you have to defend yourself.”
Below the NHL there is a myriad of youth and minor-league hockey leagues.
Compared to going pro in football or basketball, where simply playing in high school, and then college, provides most of the exposure one needs to get drafted, there is a plethora of different options for those aspiring to be the next Sid Crosby.
There’s the NAHL, the WHL, the OHL, the QHL, the USHL, the CHL, the NAPHL, and more.
Alden has basically narrowed it down to two: the USHL and WHL.
The USHL is based mainly in the Midwest, and is considered to be one of the premier youth hockey programs.
Players aren’t paid to play in the USHL, which preserves a player’s amateur status so that he can still play college hockey, but all of a player’s expenses are covered. From room and board, to equipment — everything is paid for.
That’s Alden’s first choice, should he get drafted by the USHL.
His second choice would be the WHL, which is a sub-league of the Canadian Hockey League.
The WHL is on a similar level as the USHL in terms of sending players to the NHL, but pays its players a small monthly stipend. Because of the stipend, players in the WHL are not eligible to play college hockey.
Which is not ideal for Alden, who wants to play hockey at the University of North Dakota or Boston College.
To get noticed by either league, a player needs to be scouted. And when you live in Eastern Washington, it takes a little more work to get exposure.
Alden won’t know for sure how interested either league is until the draft.
“For two seasons, he’s been heavily scouted,” Nate said. “They’re getting a look, but in the West it’s mostly the CHL. In order to get exposure to the USHL, you have to travel a little bit and go further east.”
The next step for Alden is the USHL Combine in February. A series of games and practices, the combine is essentially a chance for the league to put prospects under a microscope.
For now, however, Alden must wait.
Wait, and train.
“But it comes down to (the fact that) he’s earned (the exposure),” Nate said. “He’s worked hard, he’s done his school work even when he doesn’t want to. He’s pushed, his grades are good, he’s where he needs to be on terms with his teachers, and that’s been very important to us.”