📝 by Ian Stephenson | AHL On The Beat
The Bridgeport Islanders have had a significant track record of developing National Hockey League talent, and specifically key defensemen.
NHL All-Star Adam Pelech is just one example, putting in the time with Bridgeport through 105 American Hockey League games before blossoming into one of the most steady and reliable defensemen on the New York Islanders. Pelech, who helped the Metropolitan Division win the 2022 NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas on Saturday, is from Toronto, which is certainly a hotbed for hockey talent.
But many Bridgeport defensemen have reached the NHL without the benefit of growing up in a traditional hockey region.
Take, for instance, Grant Hutton. The 26-year-old from Carmel, Indiana, has been a staple of the Bridgeport defense for the last two seasons, and when the parent club needed reinforcements earlier this year, Hutton was prepared and ready.
“I was sitting at home when I got the call, didn’t really know what I was walking into,” Hutton said. “But it was all very exciting and it’s what everyone at this level is waiting for.”
Indiana isn’t exactly known for producing hockey talent, especially when compared to its midwestern neighbors. After all, a state with a well-known basketball movie named after its people is probably not going to have a lot of kids on the ice during the winter. In fact, only 11 Hoosiers have ever made it to the NHL. Hutton became the 11th on Nov. 20, 2021, when he made his debut in the inaugural game at UBS Arena against the Calgary Flames. He played five games during his first NHL stint.
It all started from humble beginnings.
“It was definitely interesting growing up in a place where hockey wasn’t really a prominent sport,” Hutton said. “I started playing because my dad [played] growing up, so my family had a little bit of background.”
While most of his classmates played football, baseball, or basketball, Hutton was on skates from the time he could walk, and he formed a tight-knit group with his hockey teammates, many of whom stayed together until they were old enough to play junior hockey. He went on to play 117 games in the North American Hockey League and 35 games in the United States Hockey League prior to a solid college career.
Miami University was Hutton’s only Division I offer, so a decision to stay in the Midwest and advance his career close to home was an easy choice. Miami University is in Oxford, Ohio, which is only an hour and 45 minutes from Carmel, so Hutton’s parents were able to regularly attend games, something that he learned to appreciate. He spent four years at Miami, serving as an alternate captain during his sophomore and junior seasons, and despite having a professional offer following his third year, Hutton decided to return to school so he could finish his degree in marketing while also captaining the RedHawks.
He initially agreed to an entry-level contact with the New York Islanders as an undrafted free agent in March of 2019 and made his pro debut with the Bridgeport on March 27, 2019. Hutton recorded six points (one goal, five assists) in his first nine pro games.
Hutton’s NHL promotion this season wasn’t a surprise to Islanders fans given how his game has progressed. Since joining the AHL, Hutton has worked on his consistency and conditioning, as he had to get used to the increased number of games going from college to pro. Hutton’s stats have been improving as well: he has five goals this season through 28 games, just one shy of his career high, which was accomplished across 55 games in 2019-20.
“I’ve found in pro hockey when you try and force the offense, that’s kind of at the expense of everything else, so number one priority for me is to take care of our own end, and keep the puck out of the net,” Hutton said. “And usually when you do that, well, the offense comes on its own.”
Of course, Hutton’s ultimate goal is to get back to the NHL. Since returning to Bridgeport, he has taken a step back to focus on not forcing the issue in his play, something he believes is easy to do when returning to the AHL. And the most important thing he tries to remember is his roots as a player and person. Good things will come if he does.
“There are only 11 people from Indiana that have played in the NHL, and that’s something I take a lot of pride,” Hutton said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. It can be done if you stick with it and you do the right things every day. Work hard and commit yourself to the game.”