(photo credit: Stockton Thunder)
“You have to be the hardest working guy out there every night, that is the leader of the group, you can’t take a night off and you have to be an extension of the head coach.”
If you look around the Stockton Arena, there is one jersey that is by far the most abundant, 24 Hunt. The fan favourite, the one they call “The Mayor of Stockton”, the Captain Garet Hunt. He is not a big player but his on-ice presence makes an impact. If you have been on the receiving end of his hip check into the boards or dropped the gloves with him, he doesn’t back down for himself or his teammates. He puts everything out there, holds nothing back. Yet, if you run into him before the game in the hall, his energy exudes something more, a strong sense of self, soft spoken and reflective.
Garet Hunt grew up in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, a small municipality outside of Vancouver and started skating like most Canadians when he was 2 years old. His parents had to rent the ice and had to drive pretty far to even get to a rink. His father got a coach for Garet, his brother Trevor and several other kids to help them get a head start on hockey skills. Although his father didn’t play hockey, he saw how much passion his boys had for the game and tried to do whatever he could to give them the opportunity to get out and play. Garet’s brother was one year older and they developed a natural sibling rivalry.
“Growing up you want to be as good as your older brother and he was always obviously better than me growing up. I always wanted to be as good as he was. I didn’t even want to play defence, but he played defence, so of course I wanted to play defence. I played a couple years of D because he did. I switched to forward but I still just wanted to be as good as he was. That pushed me to get better every year because I wanted to play on his team. He was on the second year AAA team and I’d be on the first year team and not a lot of first year kids make the team. I always wanted to play so bad with him so I just worked my butt off so I could get the opportunity to play with him. That was the way, just trying to keep up with him.”
When asked what type of player he identified with growing up, it came as no surprise that he gravitated to the scrappy kind of players like Tie Domi and Bob Probert, but he also liked guys that could score, players like Canucks’ Pavel Bure and Bruins’ Cam Neely, who for Hunt was pretty much the complete player. He enjoyed watching the game, but the players that stuck out for him and that he would follow through his hockey card collection were the impact type players.
Hunt loved the Canucks growing up and although they lived close to Vancouver, it was still quite a drive to get there. The games were also pretty expensive so the hockey his family grew up with was the local teams, junior hockey, the Vancouver Giants and the Chilliwack Chiefs. The Chiefs were his favourite team and he tried to go to as many games as he could. He can remember lots of the players that he looked up to and enjoyed watching that never made it to the NHL. He felt like he was able to connect with the local teams and that they had more things in common. He felt that he could develop a relationship with the players that you couldn’t with an NHL team.
When it finally came time to play in juniors at age 15, it was a dream come true for Hunt that he got to play for the team he loved growing up, the Chiefs. Coach Harvey Smyl played a big role in Hunt’s early development as a player. He then moved on to play with the Vancouver Giants, under the leadership of Don Hay who molded Hunt into the player he is today.
“Even now, when things aren’t going the right way I try to think of what he would be saying to me, or what he would do or how he would be coaching. I even try to use that in my leadership role with the team. Not only was he a great coach he was a great leader. He was a huge inspiration to me and I wouldn’t be where I am today without having him coaching me and developing me.”
Giants Coach Hay gave Hunt an identity as a player, something that is essential for on-ice success. If a player knows what his role is out there on the ice and plays his part, his teammates find it easy to know his identity. A team doesn’t need 20 goal scorers, they need players who fit together who build the best team.
“Hay always said there is always going to be a need for a guy like you (Hunt), even if you are not going to be able to score 50 goals in a season. I’ll contribute in other different ways. You know you have be the hard player on the puck, whether it’s checking or playing on the penalty kill. You have to find a way to play minutes and my biggest thing was I had to be responsible on the ice, responsible for me, don’t take that penalty, and be counted on in situations. If coach can’t trust you every time you go out and get scored on, your ice time is going to diminish.”
During the four years that Hunt played for the Giants, Coach Hay helped turn a somewhat loose cannon type player into one who knows when to draw the big guns and when to holster them. He traces his pro success back to these formative years with the Vancouver organization and the attention and direction he received from Hay.
“Hay gave me the meaning behind certain words like Character. When you say about a player, ‘they are a character type player or an energy type player’ you have to have that identity and they gave me a meaning out of those words. That’s what I live by now, what I was taught there.”
Along with player development, the Giants organization had a string of great team leaders who Hunt looked up to; Brett Festerling, Mark Fistric and Milan Lucic, all guys who are in the NHL today. Being surrounded by these players day in and day out rubbed off on Garet and each week the team had leadership groups where the team worked with the captains and Coach Hay. During his 20-year old year he had the opportunity to be the assistant captain in Vancouver and he learned a lot from that experience on how to be a leader and how to carry himself. He realized how much as a young guy in the league you look up to those that lead and he carries this with him into his Captaincy today.
“I’ve been a young guy and I try to go back and think what those guys (that led me) would do or how they would carry themselves and what they said in a certain situation. What it comes down to bottom line is if you are going to say it then I have to do it myself. That is the biggest thing I think with being a good leader. I can’t be barking orders in the dressing room if I’m not going out there and following through with it myself, so I try to go as hard as I can every game.”
Hunt says that it is an honor to be named the captain and to have that role of leadership. When he first came into the ECHL, he was in and out of the lineup and wasn’t playing a lot of minutes. Matt Thomas, then Stockton Thunder Head Coach took the time with Hunt to develop his game and gave him opportunity. At the pro level, even though it is a development league, the coach’s job is less about teaching and more about opportunity. Thomas named Hunt Captain and several coaches in the league were shocked that he had named a fighter, captain, because really at the time that was what Hunt was.
“I think by naming me the captain he gave me an opportunity to play more minutes, be more responsible, get more points and contribute more offensively as much as defensively. There was a lot of trust in him to give me that honor and I really didn’t want to let him down. Especially because of what everyone was saying and why he named me captain.”
Hunt feels that it is the same with new head Coach Rich Kromm, that he has put a lot of trust in Hunt to be responsible in that leadership role. Kromm wanted him to continue on as the team captain given the success from last season.
“What he says I have to live and die by that. I have to make the players believe in what he says regardless of what it is and that is how you have a successful team is everybody buying in to the system and buying into the team. I think having Rich Kromm here we’ve had great success to start the season and everyone is buying in and things are going good.”
He likes his tight knit group and he tries to stay close with the guys on and off the ice. He feels that is one of the reasons the team had so much success last year and got as far as they did, into the Kelly Cup Finals.
“What I tell the guys the most is it doesn’t matter how you play or thinking you have an off night you are always going to be able to work. If we have twenty guys working we give ourselves a good chance to win. When you know a guy is going to work as hard for you as you are for them that is when you get success.”
Another piece to the Thunder’s and Hunt’s success is the dedicated fan base that the team enjoys. Stockton, CA is not a typical hockey market but it is a city that loves its minor league hockey team. Hunt loves to play here and he loves the city and its fans. When he first found out he was coming to California to play, he had a slightly different picture of what California hockey might be like.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be like in the movies and there would be beaches everywhere, red corvettes you know. I didn’t know what was going on and when I came here and obviously I didn’t see any beaches, red corvettes or anything, no blond hair, no surfer guys walking around I didn’t know what was going on and I was kinda bummed out.”
He was used to playing in Canada where the crowds are big even for Junior teams particularly in Vancouver. Hunt had heard that ECHL crowds were not as large as those in the AHL and certainly not like the NHL, but when he came into the Stockton Arena for his first game he fell in love with the city and its fans.
“The people are great, the fan base is spectacular and being the kind of player that I am I feed off the fans. I feel like they have assisted me in my success throughout my career here and the organization as a whole. I’m happy coming to work every day, there is no way you can beat that.”
Hunt has been in Stockton now six years and he’s officially declared it his second home, recently purchasing a house. For him it is the perfect place to enjoy the outdoors, be out in the community and play the game he loves, wearing the number 24.
“I wore that my whole junior career and I just fell in love with the number and coming in here they had that number available. They gave it to me and I’ve never looked back since. I don’t think I could wear anything but 24.”