The CHL is ready for the national spotlight.
Debuting Friday, the puck drops for the 2021-22 CHL on TSN broadcast schedule, with the first game of the doubleheader night featuring a showdown between the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves and Kingston Frontenacs at 7:30 p.m. ET.
To get you ready, the CHL went 1-on-1 with Frontenacs blue-liner and Florida Panthers draftee Braden Haché, who spoke of his time at camp with the NHL club, his return to Kingston, what it’s like to play alongside 2022 NHL Draft headliner Shane Wright, and more:
CHL: What is it going to be like playing in those empty buildings for now?
Braden Haché: I think it is different. You kind of have to bring your own energy. We talked about that as a team leading up to our last game at home against Peterborough. It is different. It is quiet. You rely on your team a lot. We are thankful that the OHL is doing everything it can for us to play. After not playing last year, it is cool to see. We are thankful as players and happy we get to play the games. A lot of us are creating our own energy on the bench, and it is just that much more important now.
CHL: What was last year like for you?
BH: It was hard. It was a hard year for a lot of players. It is a game where you don’t realize how much you really love it until it is taken away from you. Although the time at home was nice, it was hard mentally for a lot of players. The world realized how important mental health is and how important the game is to us. A lot of players went through a lot of things that they never had before. Being around the guys and the camaraderie of the room and the family that we create when we are playing hockey, it is something you really miss when you are not around it. Your love of the game grew that much stronger when it’s taken away from you. It was hard. There is only so much skills work you can do before you really want to play. It definitely wasn’t an easy year but there was a lot that I learned.
CHL: How have you evolved as a player from your rookie season until now?
BH: The jump from a 16-year-old to an 18-year-old is pretty critical, especially with size and strength. As young guys, it is such a big jump and you can make so many changes as a player. That year in between, I put a lot of time into increasing my footwork. It is the same game at the next level, it is just that much faster. It is cliché to say size, speed, and strength, but really that’s what you need to work on. It is a stronger and faster game at the next level so I put a lot of effort into that, as well as my offensive game and the little things. Being able to get as explosive as I could has really helped me this year. As a person, coming into a dressing room where you have a lot of young players, you have to have leaders on the team and show them the ropes. I think what has led to a lot of success in Kingston is that we have such a good room.
CHL: How exciting was it to hear your name called by the Florida Panthers?
BH: It is a day that you don’t want to think about, especially in a year where there was so much that you can’t control, but you do. I tried to give myself no expectations going into the day. I talked to Florida via Zoom a couple weeks prior to the Draft. I knew we had a good connection. We talked about where I was then versus the last time they saw my tape in March 2020. It was an exciting day. I went golfing in the morning to try to get my mind off things. It is a day that you dream of your whole life. There was actually a commercial break while Florida was on the clock so I didn’t see my name pop up on the board. It was my sister upstairs who was following it on her phone. She screamed out ‘Florida’ and when the Draft came back on TV my name was a couple names up. It was pure joy from there. I wish I could go back to that day. I will never forget that day. It was a cool moment for my family. I had my whole family there.
CHL: What was camp like with the Panthers?
BH: I hadn’t played a game in a year-and-a-half. My first game was in Tampa at rookie camp with Florida in a mini tournament with Nashville and Carolina’s prospects as well. Development camp leading up to that was so cool. We had about four days in Fort Lauderdale for development camp. It was pretty crazy to be putting on NHL equipment. We were treated like kings. It was a pretty cool experience. We spent time with guys like Greg Campbell and Bryan McCabe. Legends like Roberto Luongo are walking around. We had some games at development camp and then I was fortunate enough to go to main camp. It was eye-opening and a cool experience to practice and play a game with guys like Aleksander Barkov, Joe Thornton, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, and all these different players who you grew up watching who are stars in the NHL. It was cool to see their habits and how they prepare. I got into a preseason game, which was awesome. It’s a night I won’t forget. The guys were great. We had a roundtable discussion with Campbell, Thornton, Patric Hornqvist, and Rick Dudley, McCabe, Joel Quenneville, and Ulf Samuelsson. It was crazy to sit in the same room with all of these people who have had outstanding careers in the league and all of these Stanley Cups that have been won. I felt I shared more in common with Hornqvist being a guy drafted in the seventh round. I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity to ask a legend a question. He is someone who has won two Cups. He is known for his compete and how hard he works. I asked him how he grew his confidence being a seventh-round pick. It was cool to listen to him speak about how he grew his game and how he put his head down and worked. There wasn’t a day when he wasn’t doing all of the little things like a professional and that is what got him there.
CHL: What was the message from McCabe and the Panthers coming out of camp?
BH: I talk to McCabe on a weekly basis. He is great with being in contact with me. He was an outstanding defenceman in the league so it is so cool to have that connection with him where it is situational questions or even little things to pick his brain. He is a pretty easy guy to talk to and very approachable. He was on the ice every day with us in development camp and the amount I grew as a player in those four days was crazy.
CHL: What changed in December when the Frontenacs became one of the hottest teams in the CHL?
BH: We talked about having two years of first-year players and a lot of us being off the game for a while. We came into a team where we know we can be the best in the OHL. It was about learning how to win and not getting too high or too low. Over the last year, we have built a culture where winning matters and losing is just simply not accepted. That has been the biggest thing we have come together around. We have such a tight-knit group then when we come to the rink we want to battle for each other. We want to block shots and do anything to win. Everyone has accepted their role and we have found confidence. There is a different culture in the organization now, top to bottom, where we know we are going to win and there is a different level of confidence. There is a calmness on the bench where even if we go down a couple goals, we are going to come back. That has been the biggest change for us.
CHL: What is it like playing with so much skill in the Frontenacs lineup?
BH: It makes you better as a player. When you play on a good team or compete against a good team in practice, that has been so good for us. We make each other that much better every day. Being able to have guys like Zayde Wisdom, Martin Chromiak, and Shane Wright, and all these skill players, when you go toe-to-toe with those guys every day, it is that much better for you as a player. The depth we have from top to bottom is pretty cool.
CHL: Did the OHL seem slower to you after coming back from Panthers camp?
BH: The NHL is faster. It is the same game but it is faster. What really helped is I feel like I have the OHL speed down now. In your first year, you grip your stick a little hard. The biggest thing for that, development wise, was being able to make decisions and being able to slow the game down. Being a simple player helped a lot.
CHL: What is it like having Shane Wright on the team and knowing there are eyes on him every night?
BH: Shane and I are pretty close friends. He is an outstanding person and player. We try our best as a team to release that pressure off of him and know that it is a team battle. There is a lot of outside noise, and a lot of us can’t relate to that, but we just try to do our best. It is cool to see his everyday habits. He is a leader and a lot of guys follow him just because he does everything right and the things that make you a pro one day. He brings a different energy and elite skill to the team. If he was scoring goals and only skill and didn’t play any defence, then a lot of guys would think that that’s what they have to do. Guys follow him because he is a 200-foot player. He is great in the defensive zone and that leads to his offense because whether he has a good stick or good positioning he is looking in the right places and following our structure, and that leads to a lot of our success. Having a lot of young skilled players on our team, it is good for them to be able to have him as a role model and someone to watch on the ice because he plays the full game.
CHL: What impact does Wisdom bring to the team?
BH: It’s a big spark. A lot of people may not see it just because he kind of low key returned to the ice. When he gets playing with Wright and Chromiak, it is a different energy for our team. In the room, he brings experience after last year in the pros. We are happy to have him back. He is a special player and he is a worker. He is not a small guy. He will run you over and then put the puck in the back of the net, so it is a big piece for us. It is a big piece for our confidence as he brings that much more depth and skill. We want to win a championship so being hard to play against is a big part of the identity of our team.
CHL: What are the strengths of your team?
BH: We play a fast, physical game. We have five in the picture at all times. We have our most success when we track hard and create turnovers in the neutral zone. We have a lot of energy guys. Top to bottom, we are confident in ourselves, and confidence is a big part of success. We have a tight group in the room. We are going to rally around each other and I am excited to see what we can do.
CHL: What will it be like to play on TSN?
BH: Playing on TSN any time is pretty cool. You grew up watching TSN and SportsCentre every morning. It’s cool when you can play on that stage, especially right now with no fans in the building. There is a lot of time when family can watch that or friends taking pictures of their TVs and sending it to you. I can promise you that the Frontenacs will be ready to go.
CHL: Does playing on the national stage make it more challenging to prepare?
BH: We keep it the same and don’t try to change up anything. We know that the games are a little longer and that there are more breaks. It will be our first game of our full lineup in a long time for us. I think that is going to add to the energy of playing in a TSN game. When guys play in their first nationally televised game, they can grip their stick a little harder.
CHL: How do you shake off the rust after only playing three games since Christmas?
BH: Keeping it simple for the first couple minutes of the game where we are making sure everyone gets in and rolling all of our lines. A quick pass or hit gets you into the game. We compete so much as a team in practice, and that intensity is the same in practice as it is in a game, which helps us get back into it quickly. A couple of full team practices this week will get us right back in. There is no time to sit back and watch.
CHL: How do you prepare for Sudbury?
BH: The biggest thing for us is preparing the same for any game. In this league, anybody can beat anybody. Everyone competes and that is what I love about this league. Preparing the same is going to be part of our culture in the second half especially if we want to be successful. We are a top team and that means we are going to get every team’s best just because they want to beat us. That fuels our fire a little bit more and I think that is what is going to lead to our success in the second half. We are excited to get back, get some wins, get some confidence, and roll from there.
CHL: As someone who has officiated minor hockey, does it give you a different perspective?
BH: It gives you a different level of respect and understanding that things happen fast. It gives me more of an appreciation for them and some more knowledge on how to talk to them.
CHL: Why should fans watch the CHL on TSN on Friday?
BH: We’re an exciting team to watch. We have a lot of talent, including Shane Wright who brings a lot of big talk in the hockey world. We are a fast, physical team. You’re going to want to watch the Frontenacs if you are a hockey fan, I promise you that.