On an early July morning, Florida Panthers forward prospect Steven Hodges is on the beach participating in a development camp training session with his fellow Panther prospects. It’s a typical South Florida morning, with the early cool air rapidly dissipating into oppressive heat as the sun climbs across the sky. Hodges and his fellow campers are enjoying their midweek reprieve from the intense on-ice sessions that have made up the early part of camp. For many in South Florida, the ease of transitioning between the ice-rink and the beach is taken for granted but for Hodges, a native of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the juxtaposition between ice and sand may take some getting used to.
When asked about the differences between playing hockey in Yellowknife and South Florida, Hodges smiles and turns his gaze towards the waves breaking on the shore before replying, “There, you can go out to the ponds and play for hours; here you can go to the beaches instead. It’s beautiful here in Florida.”
Growing up playing hockey in Yellowknife, NWT, the sunny beaches of South Florida were likely very far from the mind of young Steven Hodges. With a population of approximately 20,000, Yellowknife is the largest community and the capital city of the Northwest Territories. Just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Yellowknife winters feature five hours of daylight per day with average temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit, while the summers feature 20-plus hours of daylight with average temperatures of 63 degrees Fahrenheit. The community began as a gold mining town in the 1930’s and quickly became a central hub of activity in the Northwest Territories. The discovery of diamonds nearby in 1991 gave Yellowknife another mining boost as the community is now the main service center for diamond mines across the NWT.
The Panthers did their own frozen tundra diamond mining when the club selected Hodges in the third round (84th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. The center’s mother and father met in Yellowknife after moving to the area from their home provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, respectively. Born and raised in Yellowknife, on the shores of the Great Slave Lake, Hodges began showing an aptitude for hockey at an early age. With just one rink and limited travel hockey options, Hodges had to play a few age-groups ahead in order to face competition befitting his precocious ability.
“There’s not too much competitive hockey up there,” Hodges said. “It’s pretty much just house league hockey so you’re just playing for fun. I grew up playing a few leagues ahead. I think I was playing three or four years ahead in Yellowknife, just to get the competition that I needed.”
In addition to playing a few years ahead, Hodges would travel to Alberta to participate in spring hockey leagues and also attend any hockey camps that made their way to his area. Eventually his enormous hockey talent outgrew Yellowknife and at the age of 14, Hodges moved to British Columbia. There he completed two successful years of youth hockey, before being drafted in the first round (9th overall) of the 2009 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft by the Chilliwack Bruins, who would later be relocated and renamed the Victoria Royals.
The move to British Columbia at such a young age was paramount for Hodges’ development and, as Yellowknife hockey coach Dan Schofield explained to the North News Service Online, Hodges benefitted from the full backing and support he received from his family.
"Our system isn't overly competitive, and it's not tiered hockey,” Schofield said. “He had to overcome enormous obstacles to get to where he is. He had a great deal of support from his parents. They were always supportive and worked to get him the opportunities that would make him better.”
Hodges thrived in his five WHL seasons with the Bruins and Royals, amassing 157 points (75-82-157) in 247 regular season games over five seasons from 2009-2014. He wrapped up the 2013-2014 season by tallying 10 points in nine playoff games with Victoria and on June 1, he signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers. The 20-year-old center will likely begin his professional career playing for one of Florida’s minor-league affiliates where he will continue to work towards the goal of playing in the NHL.
If and when Hodges does make it to the NHL, he will not be the first player from Yellowknife to make it to the sport’s top league. He does however, have the opportunity to become the first Yellowknife born player to record an NHL point. There have only been two players from Yellowknife to play in the NHL, each briefly. Vic Mercredi was the first, appearing in two games for the Atlanta Flames in 1975, and Greg Vaydik was the second, appearing in five games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1977.
The Northwest Territories as a whole have only produced a handful of NHL players. According to hockeyreference.com, there have been just five NHL players from the Northwest Territories. Of those five, only one played in more than five NHL games. That player is Geoff Sanderson, who recorded 700 points (355-345-700) in 1104 games from 1991-2008 and appeared in two NHL All-Star games. A native of Hay River, which is just across the Great Slave Lake from Yellowknife, Sanderson clearly set the NHL standard for NWT excellence by a wide margin.
While Hodges is not focused on geographic legacies, he is focused on the months ahead as he prepares for his first professional season. “You are signed now, you’ve got your foot in the door but you still have not earned anything,” Hodges said. “You are still in the same spot as you were before, you have not made any team yet, so you still have to work hard and earn your spot on your next team.”
Back on the beach for development camp, Hodges’ professional hockey career is just getting underway. He is focused on getting in shape for Panthers training camp this fall and is looking forward to the next journey of his young hockey career, which may include more trips back to the South Florida sun and sand.