Odds are you probably didn't know the name Brandon Hagel when the Blackhawks opened training camp five months ago. But beating the odds is what Hagel does.
"I've always started at the bottom and made my way up," he acknowledged.
The rookie finished with 24 points (9G, 15A) in 52 games -- good for fifth on the team in scoring, fourth in assists and second with two overtime winners -- but, more importantly, set the bar for how head coach Jeremy Colliton wants his team to play night in and night out: relentless and hard working.
"In a lot of ways he symbolized what we want our team to be," Blackhawks President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Stan Bowman said. "He was contributing, making some really nice plays, but really what his main attribute would be is really his relentless approach to the game."
"He's an easy guy to cheer for," Bowman added of Hagel's NHL path.
Video: Brandon Hagel's best of 2020-21
A sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2016, he went on to post more than point-per-game totals in his following two seasons with Red Deer in the WHL. Buffalo, though, elected to let his draft rights expire in the summer of 2018. He responded with 102 points in 66 games the following year, a performance that had NHL teams, like the Blackhawks, eager to sign him as a few agent just a month into the WHL season.
"It was early in the year, our scouts noticed he had a really good start," Bowman reflected. "He was scoring all the time. He must've scored 10-15 goals his first month. I go in there to watch him and he was everywhere. He was killing penalties, he was on the power play, he scored a couple goals the game I went to and he could've had a couple more. I went and talked to him after the game and was explaining how we wanted him to come to Chicago."
Hagel signed on in the fall of 2018, got his feet wet in Rockford at the tail end of the 2018-19 season and embarked on his pro career in earnest the following year. He burst onto the scene in the AHL and finished as the team's leading scorer with 31 points (19G, 12A) in 31 games -- taking the title of not only the IceHogs' rookie of the year, but team MVP as well. He made his NHL debut at the United Center before the season's end on a now infamous night -- March 11, 2020. Hagel had a strong outing, but it was far from the topic of conversation on what turned out to be the final night of the regular season.
"It was pretty bittersweet," Hagel said. "It was a weird situation. I knew I played pretty well and would've loved to build off of that."
Video: Mic'd Up: Brandon Hagel
Hagel joined the team in the bubble for the NHL playoffs, but remained a black ace during the Edmonton excursion while biding his time for his next opportunity to build on.
With departures and injuries to the roster ahead of the 2020-21 NHL season, he knew that he had a shot to factor into the group out of training camp. The forward took the chance to jump start the year in Switzerland while the NHL schedule remained in flux. In 14 games for HC Thurgau in the Swiss second division, he posted 15 points (8G, 7A).
Hagel carried that momentum into an impressive camp and was part of the opening roster for the year, on the outside looking in for the first three games before getting his chance on Jan. 19 in Florida. He never looked back, skating in all but one game the rest of the way -- the one game a product of a false positive COVID-19 test, not on performance.
"I didn't know what to expect coming into camp. Everything was kind of up in the air," Hagel said looking back "I didn't know where I stood, I just kind of came into camp and went from there and ended up playing 52 games. It's definitely been crazy that way."
Time and time again he was regarded as perhaps the biggest surprise on the roster this season, including by Bowman and Colliton.
"I remember earlier in the year, you just watch and he's everywhere," Bowman said. "He gets knocked down, gets right back up, gets knocked down again, he's right back up and he takes the puck from the guy and goes the other way. He embodies a lot of what we're trying to do and I think he's got that style of play that it's really easy to get behind him."
"Every single game it's like I've got something to prove," he said. "I want to prove myself game in and game out, and that's really what's helped me along the way. It really benefits me because I've been in that situation a lot in my career."
His perseverance followed Hagel back across the pond as he capped off the season at the 2021 IIHF World Championship. Canada started the tournament 0-3 and was in last place, on the brink of elimination before finishing the group stage 3-0-1 for the fourth and final spot. They then knocked off top seeds in Russia and the U.S. in the elimination round and took the world title in overtime against Finland on Sunday.
Hagel was held scoreless on the tournament, but appeared in all 10 games in his first call to the national team at any level -- starting from the bottom and making his way back up en route to a gold medal.
You'd think the 22 year old would want to take some time to relish in his journey, but that's just not Hagel's way. There's work to be done.
"It was definitely a whirlwind of a season, but it was awesome," he said. "Just really, really excited to get back here, especially with the group we have."