by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat
This is a story about Chicago Wolves rookie defenseman Nic Hague’s mom and dad. And his second mom and dad. And the brothers he didn’t meet until he was 16. And figuring out how to become a pro and an adult simultaneously.
In other words, this is a quintessential hockey story.
Lanky, fun-loving Nic, who turned 20 in December, appears to be on the fast track toward a long NHL career –- he and Charlotte’s Jake Bean are tied for the most goals among AHL rookie defensemen with 10 –- and his journey has been enhanced by a wonderful connection between his permanent family and his billet family.
When Nic flew home to enjoy the American Hockey League’s three-day holiday break, his parents, Bob and Sheila, threw their customary Christmas party in their Kitchener, Ontario, home.
Longtime Toronto Maple Leafs fans, Bob and Sheila dressed Nic in a Leafs sweater almost before he could walk. They encouraged him to play hockey only when he expressed interest –- but they insisted he learn how to look people in the eye and offer a firm handshake upon meeting them. Nic’s gregarious personality seems to be inherited.
Anyway, back to the holiday party. Some of Nic’s boyhood friends were there. Some of the Hagues’ relatives were there. And the Gelders –- Cam, Tracy, Rowan and Brady –- made the hour drive from Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.
The Gelders are neither boyhood friends nor blood relations –- they’re connected by hockey. When 16-year-old Nic joined the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads prior to the 2015-16 season, he moved into the Gelders’ home in the Port Credit neighborhood on the shore of Lake Ontario. He was their first billet.
Tracy, who grew up in Northern Ontario where billet families were common, hoped Nic would serve as a bit of a mentor to her boys, then 10 and 7. In return, the Gelders would provide a stable environment for Nic to pursue his goals as a hockey player and a student.
“We thought we would change the dynamics of the family,” she said.
Did it ever. For all of them.
“As soon as Nic arrived, the boys grabbed him and said, ‘Let’s go downstairs and play mini-sticks,’ ” Tracy said. “That’s when we realized it was more than just helping a kid out with hockey.
“Nic immediately fit into the family. He’d pick up groceries out of the back of the car, he’d go to the kids’ hockey practices, he’d go to the school with him and play baseball. Brady and Nic would curl up on the couch together and watch videos or hockey games. He’s one of the nicest kids.
“Some days he would come home and the boys would desperately want to go down to the basement to play mini-sticks, but Nic would have to study. So the three of them would be sitting at the kitchen island doing homework –- even if they didn’t have any homework. They just wanted to be doing exactly what Nic was doing.”
As soon as Nic finished his homework, though, it became time for more mini-sticks, which is essentially a hockey game in miniature. Goalies defend two small nets and all the players compete using short composite sticks. You generally chase around the blue foam ball on your knees, but when games get heated everyone tends to stand up and make things more intense.
There were nights at the Gelder house when Rowan, Brady and a half-dozen of Nic’s Steelheads teammates would play mini-sticks as if they were battling for the Cup. Good thing the basement was sound-proof.
“Rowan and Brady would play with us until they had to go to bed,” Nic said. “Then it would be just the guys on the team. We’d stay down there sometimes until after midnight playing mini-sticks. One time, Tracy came downstairs and said, “Holy, it smells like teenage boys down here’ because we were sweating and having a time.”
But Nic did more than play mini-sticks in Mississauga. In 2015-16, he earned the OHL’s Bobby Smith Trophy that goes to the player who best combines high standards of play and academic excellence –- an award won the two previous years by Connor McDavid. Last season, he captured the OHL’s Defenceman of the Year award after stacking up 35 goals in 67 games –- the most goals by an OHL defenseman in 20 seasons.
And, while Nic didn’t win an official award for this, he learned how to eat vegetables while living with the Gelders.
“I’ve really grown on vegetables in the last three years,” Nic said. “When I was a kid, I loved fruit. That was good enough for me. When I was in the OHL, I started to realize that diet was a big part of being a professional hockey player. Tracy would try to help me out as much as possible. There was one time she made a batch of brownies and they were delicious, unbelievable. I was sitting there and eating a bunch of them. Later on, she said, ‘Guess what I put in those brownies?’ ”
The answer? Spinach. Then there was the time Tracy made scrumptious chocolate chip cookies – and only later informed Nic they contained chickpeas.
“I’m fine with spinach now,” Nic said. “But before I moved in there, I probably never had spinach in my life.”
For almost every Mississauga home game during Nic’s three years with the team, Bob and Sheila Hague would drive over from Kitchener and sit in the stands with the Gelders. They watched a lot of wins and shared a lot of fun.
“The last game of the season in 2018, the whole family, we were bawling our eyes out,” Tracy said, “because it was the last time Nic was going to be with us — even though he stayed with us a little longer.”
By that time, Nic had become property of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights –- selected early in the second round of the 2017 Entry Draft –- and everyone knew he’d be turning pro and joining the Chicago Wolves to start his climb.
This season marks the first year Nic has lived on his own. He and fellow rookie defenseman Dylan Coghlan share a place in northwest suburban Schaumburg, Illinois, where they’re figuring out the trick of how to become grownups while not growing up too quickly.
“We’re doing the stuff neither of us had to do before,” Nic said. “We lived a pretty relaxed life before. We’re both trying to learn together.”
They have their afternoons and evenings where they’ll do little but play video games (Dylan dominates at Battlefield and Fortnite while Nic will play NHL19 remotely with old friends and teammates because that’s not Dylan’s thing). But they also do their best to scour Costco for the right foods to bring home and prepare – and to keep their place clean.
“I’ll give him credit. He does clean up more than me,” Dylan said with a smile. “But he hasn’t cooked once yet, actually. I don’t trust him in the kitchen. I took a couple foods classes in high school and then worked in the cafeteria sometimes as lunch, so I kind of know my way around a kitchen a little bit. I’m not a pro at it, but I know what to do.”
Usually they stick to chicken and rice and the basics, but during the holiday season Coghlan prepared pork chops with green beans and mini-potatoes.
“They were pretty hard to make because they were super-thick,” he said. “I didn’t do the best job.”
But does Nic appreciate his efforts?
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Dylan said. “He’s really appreciative, I think. He better be.”
Meanwhile, Nic’s parents try to fly down to Chicago once a month to visit their son. The Gelders are still a part of things too. As Brady’s 11th birthday approached in the late fall, Tracy gave him two options: He could have a traditional birthday party with his buddies -– or he could hop on a plane to visit Nic.
Easy choice for Brady.
So on the Nov. 17-18 weekend when the Wolves had a pair of home games, the Hagues drove over from Kitchener, parked their car in the Gelders’ driveway and then Bob, Sheila, Tracy and Brady flew to Chicago.
“Nic treated Brady so great,” Tracy said. “He got the Wolves socks, the shirt, the hat.”
While Nic prepared for the games, the rest of them drove downtown and enjoyed Chicago-style pizza and visited The Bean and Navy Pier and the Christkindlmarket, among other sites. Then, on the morning Nic had to drive them back to the airport to return to Ontario, they went out for breakfast first.
“While we were sitting there,” Tracy said, “Brady put his head underneath Nic and it was just like the way they would curl up on the couch.”
When they bid their goodbyes at O’Hare, they knew they had the Hagues’ holiday party to look forward to. Before the Gelders made the drive to Kitchener on Dec. 23, Tracy found the perfect gift at a little store in Port Credit: A large wooden sign with FAMILY spelled out in handcrafted metal letters.
Before the night was through, the Hagues took a picture with their new prize. Sheila, beaming, stood behind the couch holding up the sign. Nic sat in front of her and Bob sat to his right. And the Gelders –- Brady sitting next to Nic, of course -– joined them on the couch.
One big, happy family.
“Nic is an only child,” Tracy said, before correcting herself. “He was an only child. Now he’s an older brother.”
“They’re just a fabulous family,” Bob said. “It’s amazing how your lives get intertwined.”
“I say that I have two moms and two dads now,” Nic said. “It’s going to be like for the rest of my life.”