In discussing his Hun School ice hockey team, coach Ian McNally smiles when thinking about how physically imposing the Raiders have gotten this year.
“In general we’re kind of bigger and older than we’ve been, and it’s nice,” McNally said. “Usually you’re looking at the other team going out for warm-ups and thinking, ‘We’re in a little bit of trouble,’ when you see their size. But I imagine there’s some teams watching us going through warm-ups this year and they’re saying ‘Uh oh,’ and he’s a big reason why.”
“He” is junior defenseman Hayden Watson, whose growth spurt over the past year has put him at a commanding 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. Even more fortuitous for the Raiders, is that the Mercerville School/Crockett Middle School graduate knows how to use that size to his advantage.
“I’m grateful for my size,” Watson said. “I feel like I can use it as a plus, using my body to hit as well as shielding the puck if I’m going to the net, or trying to shield off the defender.”
Classmate Eddie Evaldi, who has played with Watson since the two were grade-schoolers with the Mercer Chiefs, feels the defenseman is a nice combination of both size and skill.
“Big, big kid; that’s the first thing I’ll say,” Evaldi said. “He’s massive, and he can really impose his will on other players.”
It doesn’t stop there.
“He’s extremely intelligent with the puck, that’s one thing I notice about him,” Evaldi continued. “There’s a lot of kids who will get nervous, and they’ll just rim it and throw the puck away. But he’s so poised, he’s able to make plays. That’s something I really admire about his game that I try to bring to my game. “
It is only fitting that Hun plays its home games at Iceland in Hamilton, since it is pretty much Watson’s home away from home.
He first laced up the skates at age 3 and quickly joined the Mercer Chiefs a year later with his dad, Oscar, serving as his coach. Evaldi, who lived in Hamilton for four years before moving to Michigan and now Lawrence, was also on that team.
“My dad really helped me get on the ice and started me playing more,” Watson said.
Hayden played with Mercer until age 12, then went to Virtua Hockey in Pennsauken for two years before returning to the Chiefs and playing for long-time coach Chris Barcless. He and Evaldi were the only two in their class to get ice time with Hun as freshmen. Watson had three assists his first year and chipped in with a goal and four assists as a sophomore.
He started his junior campaign without a point as he went scoreless in the season opener against Bishop Eustace, but was about six inches from a hat trick as he hit the crossbar on three different shots.
“I’m gonna end up finishing those soon,” Watson promised.
McNally is counting on it.
“He’s kind of been waiting his turn to do that,” he said. “This is his chance to be in the spotlight a little more. We’ve always had six Ds (defensemen) we roll through and we have one or two that get most of the time on special teams and all that stuff.
“This year, Hayden will get a chance to be one of those guys; play the power play and penalty kill and get a ton of time five-on-five. He’s got poise with the puck now. He’s huge, he can shoot, and he can pass so this will be a good kind of breakout year for him.”
Watson got off some nice shots against Eustace and also did a good job screening in front of the net. He is looking to score more, but realizes what his main role is.
“I’m definitely gonna try to put the puck in the net as well as set up my teammates,” he said. “But then again, at heart I’m always a defenseman. That’s the way to go for me.”
Team captain Brian Nelson feels he goes that way quite well.
“I’ve seen him play since he was real young,” Nelson said. “He was a great addition to our team. He stepped up from a young age, and he’s a shutdown guy.”
McNally noted that one of Watson’s best attributes is his long reach, which makes him tough to deal with in tight and in the corners. He also manages to play within his means.
“It’s hard; once you’re in tight on him, to get the puck away from him and also get the puck by him,” McNally said. “He’s also just kind of a trustworthy, pass-first guy. He gets control, looks up and makes the pass. As a defenseman, it’s not sexy but it’s what makes you very effective. Instead of trying to do a ton every time you have it, he can zip it. He’s got a hard shot and a hard pass.”
Much of that has to do with his lifelong love affair with the game. Watson is at Iceland pretty much every day, either with Hun, the Chiefs, or doing morning skates. His dad sometimes drives the Zamboni and, although he is no longer Hayden’s coach, has left his mark.
“He had a huge impact on me,” Watson said. “He was very tough on me when I was young; he wanted me to limit my mistakes. He shaped my game and just told me what’s right.”
“It’s nice that his dad’s a coach, and his brother plays,” McNally said. “All he knows is hockey pretty much. He sees the ice well. With his shot and ability to find guys, this will be the year for him to put up points. He gets the chance to be one of the big dogs as a junior instead of a little kid on the team.”
Hockey is not the only contribution the Watsons make to Iceland. Hayden’s mom, Kim, runs a Korean Fusion food truck that travels around the area, and also lends her culinary talents to the rink’s snack bar.
“She’s a great chef,” Watson said. “Her fusion mixes foods of different cultures. You can get tacos, rice bowls, dumplings. It’s all at the snack bar.”
Sounds like quite the assortment of recipes, which is probably necessary to feed a guy the size of her son.