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A part of Hayden Hawkey is missing—literally.
In late November of 2014, Hawkey was concluding his most memorable year of hockey to date only to experience how the sport’s physical nature and constant collisions can change fortunes in an instant.
Off to a flying start in his second year with the United States Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers, Hawkey was picking up where he left off the previous season in which he was named USHL Goaltender of the Year.
During the offseason, he committed to Providence College and was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. Yes, hockey had been very good to Hawkey.
All that positive momentum, however, came to a thudding halt during a Nov. 29 game when a goal-mouth collision left him with a season-ending knee injury.
Hawkey underwent surgery and was still processing the unexpected turn of events when something even worse happened about a week later.
An adverse reaction to pain medication caused severe abdominal pains and put Hawkey back in the hospital. There were anxious moments as his condition grew worse—including a period of unconsciousness—before improving.
Doctors were forced to remove portions of Hawkey's large and small intestines.
“It was the weirdest thing and they really couldn't tell me what caused it, maybe a preexisting condition that was triggered by the medication,” he recalled this week. “I couldn’t tell you measurements, but a big chunk of my large intestine and smaller portion of my small intestine was taken out.”
As a result, Hawkey was forced to alter his diet, which remains an ongoing, trial-and-error process.
“It took me some time to understand what my body was going through and what foods I can easily digest and which ones upset my stomach,” he said. “I have gotten used to eating certain foods and avoiding others more and more over time.”
A little more than four years after that harrowing episode, Hawkey shows no ill effects and is putting the finishing touches on a career with the Friars that has seen him evolve into one of college hockey’s elite netminders.
Heading into this weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinal series against Boston College, Hawkey is tied for first in the nation with a school-record seven shutouts, is second in minutes played (2,103), tied for second in wins (21), third in goals-against average (1.77) and tied for third in goalie starts (35).
He is the only goaltender in the country who ranks among the top three in every one of those categories.
“I have been able to improve with the experience I’ve gained from starting for three years and being here for four,” said Hawkey, who became Providence’s No. 1 goalie as a sophomore. “I’ve become comfortable with my teammates and in our system. I know to what expect from these guys on the ice. I’ve also put in a lot of work, a lot of hours into getting better and I’m seeing the results.”
That work includes the kind of intense practices coach Nate Leaman loves conducting, prior to which Hawkey, a seven-time Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week, participates in one-on-one sessions with goaltending coach Kris Mayotte.
“I’ve learned so much during that time before practice, which has been invaluable in my development,” Hawkey said. “Our practices are kind of like games—everybody is excited to compete hard and put their best game forward. That’s when we have the most fun and play our best in games.”
Very little has gotten past Hawkey the last nine games during which the seventh-ranked Friars have gone 6-1-2. He has allowed just 10 goals and pitched two shutouts with a whopping .956 saves percentage, stopping 219 of 229 shots.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Hawkey has not lost a game since Feb. 9 and is already Providence’s career leader in wins (69), shutouts (15) and goalie appearances (119).
“I’m going a better job this season at fighting through traffic in front of the net and controlling rebounds,” he said. “That’s helped cut down the number of shots I’ve faced.”
Hawkey has lowered his goals-against average from 2.04 last season and his saves percentage has gone from .919 to .923, fourth in Hockey East. Hawkey has already matched his shutout total of the previous two seasons combined.
“Hawk has always kept working and working at improving his skills and has kept getting better and better as a result,” Leaman said. “Hayden has stayed in Providence every summer to work on his game and Coach Mayotte has done an unbelievable job with him. It's no surprise to anyone Hawk is having his best season as a senior.”
Hawkey, who spent the first 13 years of his life in Chicago, took to hockey at age 5 after drawing inspiration from attending Blackhawks games with his family.
Coaches of his first youth team rotated players so they experienced all positions at least once. When everyone had taken a turn in goal, they asked if anybody wanted to try it again.
Hawkey immediately piped up and has been between the pipes ever since.
“Once the goalie equipment was passed around to everybody, I didn’t hesitate to put it on again,” he said. “At first, I was probably a better skater than goalie, but I loved playing the position from the first time I tried it. It’s also nice to be on the ice the whole game instead of being called to the bench for line changes.”
Hawkey’s career continued to flourish after his family moved to Parker, Colorado, when he was 13. He posted a 1.94 goals-against average or better and a saves percentage of at least .927 in all three of his seasons with the Colorado Thunderbirds U-16 and U-18 teams before joining the Lancers in the fall of 2013.
Hawkey won his first 12 starts in Omaha and USHL coaches and general managers voted him Goaltender of the Year. Hawkey topped the league with a 1.99 goals-against average, the USHL’s lowest in 11 years, and a .926 saves percentage.
He committed to Providence soon after the season ended.
“I knew I wanted to play college hockey on the East Coast, but had no clue where,” he said. “A few schools reached out to me, but when I visited Providence I could tell right away the campus, the program and coaching staff would be a great fit for me, unreal for my development.”
Leaman needed to bolster the Friars’ goaltending depth with All-American Jon Gillies set to graduate after the following season.
“We learned about Hayden during his first season in Omaha,” he said. “We were pretty excited when he committed knowing we were losing Jon. We knew Hayden had the work ethic to only get better.”
Montreal selected Hawkey in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He was the sixth American goaltender taken.
Everything was falling perfectly into place for Hawkey until he suffered the extensive knee injury in a game against the Tri-City Storm just after Thanksgiving 2014.
A Storm player wound up landing on top of Hawkey after shooting the puck, trapping the goaltender’s left leg underneath him. Hawkey felt his knee twist.
“It was one of those fluky, funny plays that happens,” he said. “The guy crashed into me from my left. I sensed something didn’t feel right.”
Hoping the injury was not serious, Hawkey got to his feet and tried skating around, but his knee buckled and he was carried from the ice.
An MRI revealed a worst-case scenario. Hawkey had torn both his medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
“It was a pretty brutal tear and I probably underestimated how extensive and long of a recovery process it was going to be,” he said.
It was more than eight months before Hawkey returned to full strength. In the meantime, he enrolled at Providence early and began taking summer classes while completing his rehabilitation there.
Hawkey saw his first game action in more than 10 months when Leaman summoned him to play the final period of a season-opening exhibition against Simon Fraser. Hawkey stopped all five shots he faced.
He then won his first collegiate start on Oct. 31 against Colgate, finishing with 24 saves. Overall, Hawkey appeared in five games as a freshman while backing up Nick Ellis. He shined in the limited action, posting a 2-0 record, including a shutout, with a 1.67 gaa and .940 saves percentage.
Hawkey was expecting to continue his development behind Ellis as a sophomore, but was thrust into the starting role when the team’s Most Valuable Player unexpectedly signed with the Edmonton Oilers organization.
“Hayden became our top goaltender certainly earlier than he and or the coaching staff planned, but we still had confidence in him,” Leaman said. “It’s not that he struggled at first, but it was a matter of Hayden being able to read situations the college game presents and having the right footwork to get where he needed to be. Once he learned that, Hayden was very good the rest of that season, which was a great sign for our future.”
That was indeed the case as Hawkey posted a 17-7-3 record with a 1.96 gaa and .925 saves percentage from Dec. 1 until his sophomore season concluded. Overall, he had a 2.19 gaa and .913 saves percentage with three shutouts.
“I felt ready to be the No. 1 goalie because everybody wants to play every game,” Hawkey said. “For me, the challenge was understanding what it takes mentally and physically to deal with the grind of a long season and adjusting to the faster pace and higher traffic around the net of college hockey. I became more confident with time, but there was a learning curve.”
Growing pains behind him, Hawkey established himself as one of conference’s premier goaltenders last season, making the Hockey East second team and earning the Friars’ Unsung Hero Award while recording four more shutouts.
Providence takes a 21-9-6 record into this weekend’s series. The Friars, seeking their first Hockey East Tournament trophy in 23 years, finished tied for second in the regular-season standings with 31 points (15-8-1), five back of UMass.
They will likely make the NCAA Tournament for a sixth straight season. Providence fell to Notre Dame in last year’s East Regional final.
“Our focus right now is on Boston College and the Hockey East tournament, but we feel good about the team we take into the postseason,” Hawkey said. “We have more depth this year and it seems everyone is more versatile playing both ends of the ice. We don’t just have one line that does most of the scoring or only one pair of shutdown defensemen.”
Hawkey, whose rights were traded to Edmonton last June, hopes to sign with the Oilers following the season.
Leaman eagerly anticipates watching his improvement continue.
“That's the exciting thing about Hayden,” he said. “He keeps getting better.”
Mark Spezia is a freelance writer based in Lapeer, Michigan, whose work has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit Magazine, ESPNW.com, and Flint, Michigan-based My City Magazine.