ORONO — There is a piece of family lore that Ben Hutton only recently learned.
Apparently, as a beginning hockey player he was struggling with his skating, even when using a chair for assistance. Things came to a head one day when Hutton threw a tantrum while exiting the ice, smashing his stick.
“I guess after the Christmas break, I came back and something clicked. The hockey gods helped me out and I was one of the better skaters on the ice,” Hutton said.
“I don’t remember it. My parents told me this when I was home for Christmas.”
It’s certainly hard to conceive of a time when the Maine sophomore was sluggish on his skates. Hutton’s 10 goals are more than any other defenseman in the nation. Six have come on the power play. Two have been game-winners. And he’s added 12 assists to become one of the most potent scorers at his position in school history.
He’ll be key to the Black Bears’ efforts again as they host Merrimack at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Hutton has come a long way from the wobbly toddler in Prescott, Ontario, to 2012 draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks. Even his blue-line partner at Maine, senior Brice O’Connor, admits he’s sometimes in awe.
“He’s younger than me but he’s still someone I look up to with the things he can do on the ice,” O’Connor said. “He has an NHL future, no question. It’s really just how much he wants to put into it, and the sky’s the limit for him.”
KNOWS THE SCORE
Hutton grew up playing forward, and it shows. He didn’t make the switch to defense until age 16, when his junior team, Kemptville of the Central Canada Hockey League, was underperforming. Hutton told his coach that he thought he could be a bigger factor on the blue line, and the coach agreed.
“I make a good first pass out of the zone. I can help out both offensively and defensively,” Hutton said. “My heart’s a defenseman now.”
By 2012, Hutton was helping his new CCHL team, Nepean, win a title. He scored 13 points in 18 playoff games.
He had committed to Maine already, and wasn’t overly hopeful of being selected in the NHL draft after being passed over the first year he was eligible.
So when draft day arrived, he grabbed a couple of buddies and headed out on a fishing excursion.
“Sure enough, after I reeled in a bass, I got a call from Vancouver saying, ‘Hey, listen, we just drafted you,’” Hutton recalled. “And then my phone just started blowing up. My parents were watching. And then when I got back, there was a nice celebration waiting for me.
“I was already having a good day, because I caught the bass. It’s what every kid dreams about, just getting the opportunity to go to an NHL camp.”
Hutton was the Canucks’ fifth-round pick.
He has since attended two of their prospect camps, gaining confidence in his ability to compete at the pro level while also garnering tips from the Canucks’ coaching staff about what he needs to improve on at Maine. The team occasionally sends a scout to a Black Bears game for further instruction.
“They’ll say, ‘Hey, really work on your first three steps,’ or ‘Work on that first pass out of the zone,’” Hutton said.
“After the game you’re like, ‘You know what? Now that you think about it, I should have done that better.’”
POWER POINT PRODUCTION
Hutton was thrust into a prominent role immediately at Maine, scoring 15 points as a freshman and even seeing time on the power play.
He battled a severe case of nerves in his college debut, at home against Quinnipiac. But it was eased on his first shift, when he found himself with the puck in the neutral zone and prepared to dump it in and head back to the bench.
“There’s a guy coming right at me, and I shoot it in to try to take the hit. I don’t know what happened, if he caught an edge or something, but he came into me, he just went flying down, and I heard the crowd, They all went crazy,” Hutton said. “I was like, ‘All right, this is college hockey.’ ”
Hutton stands 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he’s capable of delivering big hits. But he gets much more notoriety for his offense. His coach, Red Gendron, doesn’t think that is necessarily fair.
“He’s got a great stick, and he’s got a great feel for the game. Obviously, he can skate,” Gendron said. “But there have been moments this year, on the penalty kill and other defensive situations, he’s been incredible. Basically, most nights he and Brice O’Connor play against the other team’s best players.”
Hutton and O’Connor were paired briefly at the beginning of last season, before the former wound up with senior Mike Cornell. This year, he and O’Connor have been practically joined at the hip from the outset of camp.
O’Connor, the team captain, is constantly described as “reliable.” He is more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman, although his offensive skills may be just as overlooked as Hutton’s defense. But it is O’Connor’s steady play that has allowed Hutton some freedom to roam, to join rushes with a clear conscience.
“Hutts is more creative and can pull some of those moves that I couldn’t pull off. But it’s all about reading each other. When you can do that, that’s when defensemen can really elevate their game,” O’Connor said.
“He’s impressive, though. Some stuff, like in the defensive zone, he’s coming around the net and picking the puck out of the scrum and he’ll do a spinorama between the legs and make a soft, easy pass right up to the wing. I always think if I was in that situation, I would have just went hard off the glass. But he’s got the poise and that confidence to stay calm, stay composed and sort of work his way out of a situation, make the smart play.”
Hutton has been working on getting stronger especially in the lower body. He can feel the difference when he’s battling for the puck in the corners of the rink. But he still wants to be a more explosive skater, to accelerate faster.
Gendron said he would like to see Hutton add some velocity to his slapshot, and to get it off quicker. Gendron has no doubt that Hutton will put in the work.
All hockey players have superstitions. Hutton has two. He kisses the inside of his jersey as he’s putting it on, and he and fellow sophomore Devin Shore have a ritualistic handshake they perform just before they step onto the ice.
It’s working out for Hutton and the Black Bears this season. They stand 13-10-3, tied for fourth in Hockey East with six games remaining. They finally earned a road victory last weekend at Notre Dame, just in time for a key series at Northeastern next weekend.
Hutton predicted the breakthrough against the Fighting Irish, and said he is happy to prove people wrong. Like those who still doubt his skills as a defender.
“If people think that way, I’m going to surprise them when they come down on me and we’ll have the puck going the other way,” Hutton said.
“I don’t mind that.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: [email protected]