By Tyler Lowey, Times Reporter
The Jan. 10 Western Hockey League trade deadline just passed with its annual flurry of activity. It was this deadline three years ago that allowed a pair of former Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons teammates to be connected once again.
The Medicine Hat Tigers pulled off a last-minute blockbuster deal that sent 95-point man Cole Sanford to the Regina Pats in exchange for Gary Haden, Brian Williams and three draft picks.
Haden was wrapping up his first season with the Bisons when former head coach Sandy Henry broke the news to the young centre.
One year earlier, the Pats nabbed the Airdrie product in the ninth round of the 2014 WHL bantam draft.
“It made a big difference to me at the time and gave me a different outlook on things,” said Haden, who is now thriving in his third year with the Tigers. “I played in the exhibition season with Regina that fall and was hoping to make that team one day.
“It all worked out for the best; I made my debut three games after the deadline and played four games with the Tigers during my 16-year-old season.”
Haden cracked the Tigers roster for good last season, but was still battling for ice time, which isn’t uncommon for 17-year-old players. Still, in 32 games, he scored seven goals.
He took it upon himself to put his body through a rigorous workout regime in the summer with the hopes of earning a bigger role at Tigers camp.
“Last summer was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s paid off huge,” said Haden of his time spent with the White Collar Boxing Company in Airdrie. “They were the hardest workouts I’ve ever done. I hated every minute of it, but it was something I had to do. I’m definitely going back this year.”
Aside from just the punching bag, Haden was doing all sorts of body-weight drills and agility drills in the sand. The hard work paid off and was instantly recognized by the coaching staff.
“Gary came back after a real good summer. You could tell he put a lot of work in, improved his foot speed, quickness and is way faster,” said Tigers Assistant Coach Joe Frazer. “We always knew he had a really good hockey sense and he was a good offensive guy; we just needed him to get faster.”
Haden is ripping it up this year with 10 goals and 28 points through 39 games for the Central Division-leading Tigers. Of course, it helps playing with a few 30-goal scorers in Max Gerlach and Jaeger White.
It also helps knowing a familiar face when you are trying to break into the WHL for the first time.
That was the case for Haden’s former teammate Cole Clayton, who was drafted in the third round by the Tigers in 2015, the same year Haden was acquired by the team.
Clayton’s rookie year with the Bisons overlapped with Haden’s second season during the 2015-2016 campaign. That’s when the two developed a friendship that lasts to this day.
Like Haden, Clayton debuted with the Tigers for four games that season, but as a 15-year-old. After recording 15 points in 31 regular season games with the Bisons, Clayton had high hopes of making the WHL as a 16-year-old. Playing in the Western League at 16 is a challenge on its own; playing in the league as a defenceman at 16 is a completely different animal. There are only 14 16-year-old defencemen this year who have played in more than half of their respected team’s games this season, and 16 from last season — less than one per team.
So, Clayton took a page out of Haden’s book and used it as motivation over the summer.
“After getting cut last year, I knew that another year in midget would allow me to get stronger and gain more experience,” said Clayton. “I was hoping that would help me make the team and it did. Gary helped me out over the summer and it allowed me to come into camp confident, and I think the coaches noticed that.”
Even with an aged defensive unit, Clayton is starting to carve out some playing time. This season, he already has one goal in 26 games.
“We’re rotating him and Joel Craven into the lineup so they both get ice time, develop properly and get acclimated into the league,” said Frazer. “We think Cole has a bright future and is great with the puck. Like Gary, we will need him to get stronger and quicker, and as he matures as he gets older, he will be great for us.”
Haden also noticed Clayton’s elevated play.
“Cole has been great this year. He’s playing with more confidence now. He went back to midget and made the adjustments he needed for his game. He’s even a tough cowboy now after getting in his first fight,” joked Haden.
Clayton dropped the gloves Dec. 8, when he squared up with Ty Ettinger of the Brandon Wheat Kings. It’s something the two joked about as they remain close friends in the WHL. Clayton even let Haden billet with his aunt for a few weeks last season.
“It’s great always having a guy you know and a guy you can talk to in the locker room,” said Clayton. “He knows the team, he knows the players and he knows the league. It’s been great for me to have him here with me.”
There’s still the occasional glory days talk, about their significant runs through the Alberta Midget Hockey League. But for the most part, the two are focused on a run at the Ed Chynoweth Cup and possibly even a Memorial Cup, only adding to the stories they can tell down the road long after their hockey careers together are over.
The Tigers will be In Calgary to take on the HitmenFeb. 11 at the Scotiabank Saddledome.