Almost every minor hockey player’s dream is to play professional hockey. For former Saskatoon native Derek Hulak, the dream of playing pro came true twice — both times through hard work and determination.
Hulak began playing hockey as a Flyer in the Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association. After Midget AAA, he went on to play with seven teams in four leagues including his current team: the American Hockey League Hershey Bears in Pennsylvania.
It was in late 2016 while Hulak was playing with the Utica Comets of the AHL that he suffered a devastating blow — a back injury from which doctors said he might never recover.
But Hulak wouldn’t have it. He started work to rehabilitate his injury and even signed with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms for 2017-18. Unfortunately, due to the severity of his injury, a role with the Phantoms wasn’t meant to be and he ended up missing the entire season.
“Hearing from my doctors that my injury was likely career-ending was a shock because I wasn’t ready to give up hockey,” said Hulak. “It was unbelievable when I got the opportunity to play professional hockey the first time. I was able to play a game I loved to play as a kid, so to do this as a job was a dream come true.”
While Hulak said the prognosis was hard to hear, it motivated him to get better so that he could play again.
Derek Hulak’s teams:
- Regina Pats (2005-2006, 2006-2007)
- Saskatoon Blades (2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2008-2009, 2009-2010)
- Tulsa Oilers (2010-2011)
- U of S Huskies (2010-2011,
- 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2013-2014)
- Texas Stars (2013-2014, 2014-2015, 2015-2016)
- Utica Comets (2016-2017)
- Hershey Bears (2018-2019)
He worked hard to rehabilitate his injury with physiotherapy two to three times a week, and chiropractic treatment twice a week. He also participated in active release therapy, acupuncture and stimulation, and worked out in the gym five days a week.
After almost two years of hard work to recover, Hulak finally felt ready. His agent let a few teams know that even though he had missed a lot of time, he was healthy and ready to play again.
“A lot of teams had doubts, but the Hershey Bears took a chance and invited me to camp,” said Hulak. “Even with all of my hard work and although I knew I wasn’t 100 per cent, I also had to take a chance.”
After the first two days in camp, Hulak’s back was doing well and each day he was able to push a little more.
“I made the team and played on opening day — it was a dream come true for me all over again, to be back on the ice and playing pro hockey again,” said Hulak.
Hulak’s back injury wasn’t the first time he faced adversity. In 2005, Hulak’s mom Alina was diagnosed with cancer.
While it was devastating news for both Hulak and his family, he continued to play Midget AAA Hockey and was drafted to the Regina Pats prior to the 2006-07 season. But playing away from home became more and more difficult as Alina’s disease progressed.
Eventually, then-head coach of the Saskatoon Blades, Lorne Molleken, worked with the Pats, their division rival, to trade Hulak to the Blades so he could be closer to home.
That trade resulted in Hulak not only being able to spend more time with his mom before she passed away in 2007, it started what was to become a spectacular four seasons that Hulak says were some of the best of his life.
“As much as I really enjoy playing professional hockey, when I look back, playing in front of my hometown crowd with the Blades was pretty special; I was so fortunate to have four years with the team,” said Hulak. “I still get people coming up to me to this day saying they remember me from my time playing with the Blades.”
After his Blades career ended, Hulak went on to play a half season with the Tulsa Oilers. From there, it was back home to Saskatoon where he played almost four full seasons with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
“The Huskies was a great time for me for different reasons — with a university team, you play with mainly the same group of guys for so long, and the friendships you make you have for a lifetime,” said Hulak. “It was an amazing core group of guys and it was really good hockey, and to play at this level of hockey with good friends was another of my career highlights.”
Hulak attributes a lot of his success and his determination to work hard to his mom, a woman he says was a hockey mom through and through.
“My mom loved being at the rink — she was a nurse and even if she was working nights and was tired, she always had a pre-game meal ready and waiting for me and she made sure I made it to the rink on time,” said Hulak.
“She never wanted to miss a game. When she couldn’t make it to the rink because she was sick, she listened to the Blades games on the radio, and seeing the joy in her face when I got home from having a good game really stuck with me. Here she was going through this battle, and yet she still made sure hockey came first for me — her love for the game really stuck with me.”
The passing of Huskies teammate Cody Smuk also stuck with Hulak.
“It made me realize just how quickly life can change. Here I was getting called to play hockey in Texas, and at the same time Cody was getting diagnosed with cancer. He would have wanted to keep playing, so I just try to take advantage of every day I have at the rink.”
Hulak remembers these two people who touched his life in a special way. Every hockey stick Hulak has used since his mom was diagnosed with cancer over 13 years ago bears the initials ‘A.H.’ After Cody passed away, Hulak added the initials ‘C.S.’ to his stick as well.
“It’s just a nice way to remember them, and all that they taught me about hard work,” said Hulak.
Hulak’s advice to any player dealing with an injury or any kind of adversity is to always work hard and keep trying.
“It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or how long you’ve been playing — you can always get better with practice. The main thing, though, is to have fun. I love being at the rink and to have that taken away from me for a period of time really made me appreciate being able to be at the rink every day.”
Leanne Nyirfa is a Saskatoon freelancer writer.
(This story was provided to the Express courtesy of the Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association. The SMHA is the governing body for minor hockey — ages five to 17 — for Saskatoon and area. SMHA has 3,800 registered players and 1,400 registered volunteer team officials on over 250 teams.)