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Spokane Chiefs’ Bear Hughes took unusual path to success in Western Hockey League

The Spokane Chiefs’ Bear Hughes  falls but maintains control of the puck against Everett’s Max Patterson  during the first period of a Western Hockey League game at the Spokane Arena on Oct. 6, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

If there is an origin story for his nickname, Bear Hughes and his dad can’t recall it.

For as long as they can remember, Cassius Hughes has just been “Bear.”

“Somehow he became Bear to the point that he missed school one day when he was in elementary school,” Vince Hughes said, “and my wife had to call that Cassius wasn’t gonna be in school today. My 4-year-old son said, ‘Who’s Cassius?’ ”

There are 10 children in the Hughes family – seven boys and three girls. Bear is sixth in the order, the first in a five-boys-in-a-row finish. All five children still at home are boys.

All of the boys play hockey to one degree or another. Rance Hughes, their oldest, played a couple of seasons with the Spokane Braves and one year with the St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League.

But there seems to be something different about Bear.

Until two years ago, he was almost entirely unknown to the outside hockey world. For most of his upbringing, Bear played on teams based out of the Coeur d’Alene rink that his dad manages. In the summers, he would pass pucks to Tyler Johnson, who appreciated the ice time Vince Hughes would afford him. In return, Bear got to spend time with an NHL player, soaking in whatever advice Johnson offered him.

“He’s a rink rat,” Johnson said of Bear. “He’s a guy that’s not really gonna come out and talk, but what I really liked about working with him was, if there was anything I saw or wanted him to do, I could tell him, and he was a guy who listened to you and was very coachable.

“He’s a guy that once you say for him to do something, he’ll be doing it on his own time.”

That rink rat is now a rookie star in the Western Hockey League, playing for the Spokane Chiefs, just as Johnson did.

Hughes is excelling: His 28 points are third in the league among rookies. His 11 goals are ranked fourth, and his plus-minus of 16 is the best among WHL rookies. Projections list him as a selection somewhere in the late rounds of June’s National Hockey League draft.

But his path to the WHL isn’t the usual one. His was not a series of stopovers in Canadian junior league towns, playing 40, 50 or 60 games a season in the hopes of one day reaching the NHL.

For the entirety of his career, he has lived at home with his family.

“At first I kinda wondered, because I didn’t know if I’d ever end up going anywhere,” Hughes said. “But now that I’m here, I think it was definitely the right choice.”

‘First-generation Hockey Family’

Vince Hughes grew up wrestling and playing football. When his sons showed an interest in hockey, it wasn’t something he had willfully tried to instill in them.

But their oldest son, Rance, got the bug, Vince said, when he was about 5 years old, in 1995 and 1996. Rance started playing roller hockey in a parking lot with friends from school, and they ended up attending a Chiefs game.

His son liked it, so Vince ended up taking Rance and a couple of his cousins to Eagles Ice Arena to learn how to skate.

“I went and took skating lessons, too. Figured I might as well try it myself,” Vince said. “And that’s how we got started.”

The family took to the game. The boys practiced in the family basement, doing enough repeated damage to the walls that the Hughes had to replace the Sheetrock.

Living in Post Falls, the drive to Eagles Ice Arena wasn’t insignificant.

So it was particularly helpful to the Hughes family when, in 2000, they got involved with the Kootenai Youth Recreation Organization, which leased and eventually bought the ice arena in Coeur d’Alene. They were able to skate there until its roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow in December 2008.

By the time a new, larger facility opened nearly four years later as Frontier Ice Arena, the Hughes family was heavily involved: through KYRO, a nonprofit, Vince Hughes is the rink’s general manager.

“So I guess we are now a hockey family,” Vince said. “A first-generation hockey family.”

That was about when an 11-year-old Bear was skating with Johnson, who by then was playing in the American Hockey League and was on the cusp of reaching the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an undrafted player.

On Saturday, Johnson will play in his 500th NHL game – all with the Lightning – having scored 146 goals and recorded 177 assists in seven-plus seasons in the league.

Johnson said he could see Hughes’ raw talent and knew that if he played on better teams, he would certainly get noticed by junior scouts.

“Where he was playing … I don’t think they were the greatest of teams, but he was always the best player,” Johnson said. “To get noticed, you have to go to some of these tournaments, but that’s only if you want to get drafted. It’s a good thing to get drafted, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.”

Yet with 10 children, the financial realities and the family’s priorities meant that playing elsewhere really wasn’t an option for Hughes. To him, that meant his love for the game hasn’t waned.

“I think a lot of kids when they move away from home at 11 (years old) and they’re playing 60 games a year, they’re gonna get burned out on hockey a lot quicker,” Hughes said. “So I think that’s a big thing. I still have a really strong love of the game, and I think I always will, just because when I was a younger kid it wasn’t the priority of my life.”

The Chiefs swoop in

Hughes’ time did eventually come. Before his 17-year-old season, in the summer of 2018, he accepted an invitation to the Everett Silvertips development camp. He made it to the final scrimmage and had a good camp, Vince said.

“He just didn’t have the body of work that a lot of kids that are drafted (have),” Vince said.

The Silvertips didn’t list him on their protected prospect list, and Hughes went back to Post Falls. He played the 2018-19 season with the Spokane Braves of the Kootenai International Junior Hockey League.

Campbell Arnold, a Spokane Chiefs selection in the 2017 WHL bantam draft, happened to be playing goalie for the Braves that year as well.

General manager Scott Carter and then-head coach Dan Lambert attended Braves games to watch Arnold – who has played 21 games for the Chiefs this season – but ended up enamored with Hughes, too.

“I was really impressed with him,” Carter said. “Good offensive instincts, decent size. … I just liked what I saw out there.

“As a long-time scout, it didn’t take me long to say we wanted this guy.”

In January 2019, the Chiefs signed Hughes to a standard player agreement. In 46 games with the Braves, he scored 41 goals and had 25 assists for 66 points, the seventh most in the KIJHL that season. His 41 goals were second most in the league.

He played two games late in the Chiefs season as an affiliated player, scoring a pair of goals in a 10-1 victory over the Tri-City Americans on March 16.

This year, Hughes is a staple in the lineup and has the third-most goals on the team behind Adam Beckman (23) and Eli Zummack (12).

“When he came in last year, he adjusted and scored really early, which is pretty impressive,” Beckman said. “He’s very down to earth. He’s like of of those guys where you can’t find a flaw. He does everything right.”

Manny Viveiros, who took over as Chiefs head coach this summer when Lambert accepted an assistant coaching job with the Nashville Predators, said he was instantly impressed by Hughes.

“He’s an incredible kid. He’s very humble, kind, good sense of humor, got his feet on the ground. He knows what he wants,” Viveiros said. “He kind of just fell off the tree and right into our laps, so to speak. He has nothing but impressed us.”

Viveiros credited much of that to the stability Hughes has in living at home and attending the school he has attended since kindergarten, Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls.

“I know for some kids, over my experience, some kids are better off when they’re not at home, and they get out and be with the other guys,” Viveiros said. “For (Hughes) … it was the best thing for him (to live at home). There’s so much stuff that’s new to him with the league: travel, big rinks, the arena, full houses, NHL scouts, those types of things.”

Hughes starts his day at school, comes to the rink for practice midday and heads home in the afternoon for dinner. Aside from the travel for away games, Hughes’ routine hasn’t changed much since his days playing in the Cristeros Hockey Club in Coeur d’Alene.

After two games in Victoria, British Columbia, where the Chiefs most recently played on Dec. 18, Hughes was the only player who rode back on the bus. Everyone else left from there to be with their families for the holidays.

Of the 26 players on the Chiefs’ roster, the Spokane area is truly home only for Hughes.

While living in Post Falls meant Hughes didn’t play the highest levels of hockey available to him when he was a young teenager, he has still ended up right where he wanted to be as an 18-year-old, on a career path similar to Johnson’s.

“I think in youth sports nowadays, there’s a fear of missing out. If I don’t give my son or daughter this chance, they might miss out on something. And we’ve just never felt that way,” Vince Hughes said. “There are very few people who do a sport for a living. That’s never been our goal, to have something like that. We want all of our boys through hockey and other sports to learn the things that will translate into their everyday life.”