As Brandon Hagel’s Blackhawks career blossoms, his father watches in amazement: ‘He did it all’
In 2018, Dwayne Hagel told his son, Brandon, not to give up on his NHL dream. Three years later, Brandon has become an important part of the Hawks’ future.
Dwayne Hagel still remembers the one time his son briefly thought hockey might not work out.
It was summer 2018. His draft rights relinquished by the -Sabres, Brandon Hagel was about to start his fourth year in -Canadian juniors without any clear path to playing professionally afterward. He needed a backup plan, so he started looking at college classes.
“He was in a bad spot there, he thought, and I thought, too,” Dwayne said. “A scout from Buffalo really wanted to sign him, and it didn’t happen. He did talk to me at one point and said, ‘Dad, maybe I’ll just take some classes.’
“I said, ‘Brandon, just don’t quit. Live your dream while you can. Just keep working at it.’ And the rest is history.”
Three years later, Brandon is more than just a pro hockey player.
The 23-year-old forward proved himself an important contributor on the new-look Blackhawks with his inspiring 2021 breakout season, perfectly timed with the final year of the entry-level deal he inked in fall 2018. He then cemented his future by signing a three-year, $4.5 million contract this summer.
The native of Morinville, Alberta — a small town 20 miles north of Edmonton — doesn’t like to make a big deal about his success.
“I was happy we were able to get it done,” Brandon said matter-of-factly last week about the extension. “We were on the same page … on the term stuff. We both wanted it, so it went pretty smoothly in that direction.”
But back home in Morinville, Dwayne is flooded by pride and emotion every time he describes the impact of Brandon’s meteoric rise on himself and their community.
“There’s always guys texting me, or you run into them everywhere I go in town, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been following Brandon. He’s doing so good,’ ” Dwayne said. “It’s always nice to hear, ‘Can I get that signed? Can I get this signed?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it to him when he comes in.’ It’s pretty special to be his dad.”
It became clear early on in Brandon’s youth hockey days — Dwayne estimates it was at around 10 years old, during Atom hockey — that he was far more talented than his peers. His pro potential was first mentioned when he was 15, during an exit interview with his coach after totaling 58 points in 37 games in Midget hockey.
His impact never was measured best through points, though. The same tireless work ethic that endeared him to Hawks fans last season already had blossomed by the middle of his teenage years.
“At a young age, I always told him to play both ways: ‘You’ve got to skate back,’ ” Dwayne said. “But I really think he got his work ethic because he loved the game so much. He wanted to be the first guy back. He wanted to be the first to the puck. He always wanted to do the drill first. A lot of it is just the compete level inside him.”
At the time, the thought of Brandon making the NHL was still a little too absurd for Dwayne to imagine.
“I thought maybe he’d get a scholarship or something, get his school paid for,” he said.
But on March 11, 2020, with COVID-19 about to take over the world, Brandon made his NHL debut. His family was in attendance at the United Center’s last pre-pandemic event.
“Even now, I get a little emotional,” Dwayne said, pausing between each sentence to gather himself. “It was a father’s dream, and more importantly, it was his. He did it all. It was the most amazing thing. It was like the birth of a child.”
The frequency of Brandon’s hockey milestones accelerated quickly after that.
His first trip to Europe was a two-month stint last fall with Thurgau of the Swiss league. In the spring, he increased his career NHL games-played total from one to 53, ending up as the Hawks’ fifth-leading scorer (with nine goals and 15 assists). Shortly after, he made his second trip to Europe and first appearance for a Canadian national team, winning a gold medal at the World Championships in Latvia.
“I never really had that opportunity when I was younger. I never got invited to those type of things,” he said. “To be able to do it at the pro level, after playing a full season in the NHL, is incredible. I wouldn’t have asked for it any other way.”
This summer, Brandon finally was able to relax and spend time at home with his family.
But Dwayne — like any dad would — wished it was longer because Brandon’s eagerness for the coming season prompted him to return to Chicago on Aug. 20, more than a month ahead of training camp.
The extra training time has been valuable, particularly with his biggest goals this offseason: adding muscle and improving shooting.
“I’ve been hearing it pretty much my whole life, that I needed to get stronger, and it’s something I really wanted to pin down this year,” Brandon said, estimating he has gained six or seven pounds.
The one knock on his altogether stellar play last season was his inability to convert chances. Regression helped him in the second half — he finished the year shooting 9.9%, right around league average — but he feels he could take better advantage of his opportunities next season.
He’ll need to re-earn those opportunities first. The Hawks’ additions mean there will be more NHL-caliber forwards in camp than jobs available, so a few inevitably will lose out. But Brandon, as usual, isn’t daunted.
“That’s a really good aspect to have on a team: You work for everything you get,” Brandon said. “That’s one of those [mantras] I went off growing up. I’ve had to earn my spot on basically every team I’ve been on. I’ve been down that road plenty of times. So it’s really exciting.”
When the regular season finally rolls around, Dwayne is planning three or four Chicago visits to see his son in action.
It’s still surreal for him to watch Brandon play in the NHL, and it’ll be even more surreal in person. But he’s most proud of how his son’s success and recent payday haven’t affected his industrious attitude whatsoever.
“People say to me, ‘What is it like to see your kid out there?’ ” Dwayne said. “And I say, ‘He’s still my kid. Nothing has changed. Other than that he’s wearing a Blackhawks uniform.’ ”