by Zack Fisch | AHL On The Beat
Derek Hulak is in the midst of a battle.
The 29-year-old forward is currently fighting for a roster spot with the Hershey Bears, skating on a professional tryout after missing the last season and a half due to injury.
The adversity he’s faced as a professional has been a challenge, but it doesn’t compare to the courageous battles fought by two of the biggest people in his life.
With November being Hockey Fights Cancer month, this time of year especially, Hulak draws strength from their memories.
“I lost my mother when I was 17 years old after a two-year battle with cancer,” said Hulak. “Recently, I lost one of my best friends, Cody Smuk, as well. Cancer is something that has touched everyone. I have my mom’s initials and Cody’s initials on my stick. My mom’s have been there for about 11 years now since her battle, and Cody’s have been on there since the day he was diagnosed.
“For me, it is a little perspective of what they went through, and a way that I try to honor them.”
Hulak’s mother, Alina, died in 2007 from breast cancer. Derek was playing junior hockey at the time for the hometown Saskatoon Blades, after a trade was facilitated to help him be closer to home during his mother’s treatment.
“She was my rock,” Hulak said. “She was such a hockey mom through and through. I’ll always remember even when she was battling when I was with my junior team in Saskatoon, and she was too sick to come to the games, I’d visit her, and she’d already know if I had a good game, and it lit up her face. She was so passionate about hockey. Growing up, even if she was working a 12-hour shift, she was getting up to make sure her boys were fed, and driven to the rink and ready to go to practice. You cannot say enough about that. Getting a little older you really learn to appreciate all the things that she did for me.”
Alina’s character and resolve have been passed down to Derek. He’s quickly been noticed in Hershey for his work ethic, positive attitude, and for being one of the truly good guys around the game of hockey.
“He’s been through a lot, and he’s an impressive person on and off the ice,” said Hershey vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer. “He’s a pro who is always trying to make himself better. Coming off an injury and being a key scorer in the past, he’s approached the situation here in the right way. He’s valuable for us, and brings a lot of different aspects.”
In only his fifth game of the season on Nov. 3, Hulak tallied his second goal of the year for Hershey in a 4-1 loss to Rochester. His strong play that evening earned him a chance to remain in the Bears lineup for the following night as the club hosted Hershey Hockey Fights Cancer Night.
“He earned it,” said Bears head coach Spencer Carbery. “He’s been very reliable and anytime his number has been called you know what you’re going to get with him, which is a great thing to have. He’s going to give you everything he’s got, he’s going to make great decisions, he’s going to be vocal, and he’s going to be hard on pucks and cause other team’s defenseman anxiety with the pressure he puts on them.”
For Hulak, playing on Hershey Hockey Fights Cancer Night was a chance to honor his mother, as well as his late friend and teammate, Smuk, who died in 2015 of testicular and lung cancer. While cancer has taken so much from Hulak, he pointed to Hershey teammate and friend, Logan Pyett, a cancer survivor. Pyett has returned to the AHL this season after being diagnosed with sarcoma in 2015.
The two were teammates for a year with the Regina Pats and have spent time together as roommates this season.
“To hear and see someone go through something like that at his age, and see his attitude at the rink now, you realize he’s a pretty special guy,” said Hulak. “It’s unbelievable what he’s gone through and it’s fantastic to see him doing so well here. Going through a battle like that—I cannot even imagine. It speaks volumes to his character and the type of guy he is.”
While cancer has brought grief, for Hulak, hockey has brought joy. Following his mother’s death, Hulak had a brief stint in the Central Hockey League, and four years at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the Texas Stars late in the 2013-14 season.
He got into three playoff games and the Stars went on a run, winning the Calder Cup championship.
For Hulak, the win meant a day with the cherished trophy, and he wanted to make sure to share it with his mother.
“Whenever we’d go to my mother’s grave we’d bring flowers, and that day we forgot the flowers. My sister said, ‘Well, we brought the Cup for mom and I think she really would have enjoyed that.’ We knew as soon as I was getting the Calder Cup for the day that this was going to be one of the first stops, and in my opinion the most important.”
Years removed from the emotional visit, Hulak wants to bring the Calder Cup back to honor his mother again, and this time around, Cody too. To do that, he’ll have to keep pushing for playing time with the Bears, all while thinking about the loved ones in his life who have battled and fought for so much more.