He may be the youngest player in the BCHL but that doesn't mean Hudson Thornton has steered clear of the challenge of playing against older, stronger opponents in Canada's top junior A circuit.
The 15-year-old Winnipegger debuted with the Chilliwack Chiefs last month and although he has registered only two assists in 11 games so far, he's getting second unit power-play time on the talent-laden squad while also earning the trust of head coach Brian Maloney.
Maloney is preaching patience with his rookie D-man.
"That's the trick," Maloney said earlier this week. "It's more mentally than physically, to be honest with you. When you're a player of his calibre and you have expectations of your own that you set... but it's a big jump for a 19-year-old to come into this league. Not only into junior hockey, but the BCHL. It's a good league, a fast league and you're competing against older and bigger bodies."
Thornton, who was Prince George's second-round WHL bantam pick in 2018, attended a Cougars' development camp after the draft and seriously considered playing major-junior but a late birthday (he turns 16 on Nov. 4) and an honest self-appraisal led him to the BCHL and a desire for U.S. college scholarship.
The slick, puck-moving blue-liner is accustomed to playing with top players. He was a teammate of Winnipeg Ice star Carson Lambos at the Rink Hockey Academy for the past two seasons, and in Chilliwack at least nine teammates have already accepted Division I NCAA scholarship offers — with more likely to come.
"I was still undecided about Western League or the college route going into my midget year and decided to wait a little bit," said Thornton. "In February, that's when I sat down with my family and my advisor and we really talked over everything — the pros and cons. What was going to be better for my development in the end? That led to college route and that's what I chose.
"Being younger, a late birthday and being a little bit of an undersized guy, (I wanted) to spend more time in the gym, less games and less time on the road developing, and getting my body filled out to where it needs to be before, hopefully, I can step into the pro level. That's what I was thinking when I chose the NCAA route."
Truth be told, he was already on the radar of major college programs. Pursued by more than 10 schools, Thornton went on official recruiting visits to the University of Minnesota Duluth, UMass-Amherst and Boston University before making a verbal commitment last month to the two-time defending NCAA champion Bulldogs, coached by former NHLer Scott Sandelin.
It's important to point out that while Thornton is 5-10 1/2, 170 pounds, he has several more years of seasoning before he reaches physical maturity. Thornton plans to play for the Chiefs this year and next before relocating to Duluth for the 2021-22 season.
"That would be ideal," he said. "That's what I'm striving for... at the same time, I understand it's my goal but if I need to spend another year here... and then step into Duluth, that's not a problem for me. I want to be ready when I jump in to school and be an impact player right away."
Maloney, whose Chiefs are off to a 8-4-0-1 start and top spot in the Mainland Division, has tried to temper expectations for Thornton's offensive production.
"There's no rush," he said. "He's going to be here this year, he'll be here next year and we'll see where it goes from there. It doesn't matter if he gets eight points or 80 points. As he gets more comfortable, his ice time is going to increase."
A side benefit to the move is Thornton is now a teammate of his 18-year-old brother Kolby, a goaltender acquired in a trade from the MJHL's Neepawa Natives.
"It was a win-win situation that we both got to come out here," said Hudson. "but we didn't both decide (ahead of time) we're both going here this year. They needed a goalie and obviously I wanted to come, too. It just worked out."
It's only two weeks into the USHL season, but Portage product Reilly Funk has already accepted a scholarship offer to attend the University of Northern Michigan.
"I didn't really put a timeline on it, but it was the place that I wanted to go and they made an offer," said Funk, who left his hometown Terriers in the off-season to pursue an NCAA future against better competition in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms. "It's a great fit, it's just kinda what I want and I jumped on it."
Entering Thursday's action, Funk led the USHL in scoring with eight points, including three goals, in five games. The 18 year old centres Youngstown's top line, which is also comprised of wingers Trevor Kuntar and Yusaku Ando, a rookie from Japan.
Funk made an unofficial visit to the UNM campus in Marquette, Mich., in summer and knew immediately it was a good fit. He made a verbal commitment to the Wildcats this week and will sign his letter of intent next month on national signing day.
"I think they wanted to see me play in this league," said Funk, explaining the timing of the offer. "Everybody knows it's a better league than the Manitoba Junior League and I think they wanted to see how I would keep up and how I would play in a league that was faster and more skilled. I did my part and proved I could play at this high level. I think it's going to be a great relationship."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.