From just hoping to extend his career beyond midget to becoming a B.C. Hockey League all-star and NCAA scholarship athlete, it’s been a remarkable 23 months for Aiden Hansen-Bukata.
The 19-year-old defenceman from Tsawwassen is fresh off an outstanding rookie season with the Nanaimo Clippers where he was named as second team BCHL all-star. That came weeks after accepting an offer from Rochester Institute of Technology to take his game to the NCAA Division 1 level for the 2020/21 season.
It’s a typical path for many elite hockey players, but not for one who had nowhere to go less than two years earlier.
Following what he called “a frustrating Grade 12 year” at the Delta Hockey Academy, Hansen-Bukata signed up for the Global Hockey prospects camp, hoping some team might take a chance on him.
Among the attending scouts and coaches was Darren Naylor who happened to be GM and head coach of the Delta Ice Hawks at the time.
He saw Hansen-Bukata’s potential and already had him pencilled in as a top six regular by the time he arrived at main training camp four months later.
He played alongside fellow rookie Gabriel LeBlanc and they quickly established themselves as the team’s top defensive pairing. The Hawks had their best regular season in franchise history and went on to win the playoff championship and finish second at provincials. Along the way, Hansen-Bukata simply got better with each game.
When Naylor left the club midway through last season to take on the same role in Nanaimo, signing Hansen-Bukata was among his top priorities. The transition to junior “A” went even better than he imagined.
“Obviously you want him to come in and be good but he was dominating good,” said Naylor. “He just exceeded expectations. It wasn’t just a 10-game span either. It was from game one until the end of the season. Aiden is going to get to every level because of his brain. If you are a smart player, (junior A) is a bit easier to play. Junior ‘B’ can get scrambly at times where at our level everything is more structured and the players are where you need them to be. He has got the IQ and is a great skater too. I’m just so happy for him.”
Hansen-Bukata’s rapid ascent has plenty to do with coaches who simply believed in him.
He got to play in every situation with the Ice Hawks and never had to worry about losing ice time if he made a mistake or two. By the end of last season he was logging about 30 minutes a game for Steve Robinson who had stepped in for Naylor to coach the Hawks to the championship.
“It’s incredible what confidence can do,” smiled Hansen-Bukata. “That was the one big thing I was lacking, especially in Grade 12, being one of the older guys yet not being a top guy. I gained it in Junior ‘B’ and started rolling with it. I wasn’t scared to make mistakes. You have to learn from them too. Having a good coaching staff that is supportive of you and your game style is really helpful. It has paid dividends.”
Hansen-Bukata produced 21 points in 40 games with the Ice Hawks but took on a more offensive role as the season unfolded. He went on to finish second in team scoring during the playoffs and that carried over to Nanaimo where he was among the league’s top rookie scoring defenceman with 37 points in 59 games.
“The regular season (in Delta) was about getting my feet wet where the playoffs were a good representation of where I could be most successful. And that’s when I realized it,” he said. “I also got to play in every situation and that was huge. I had seen it all and I just found everything was quicker (in the BCHL). I found I adjusted to it pretty fast.”
His play at last fall’s BCHL Showcase in Chilliwack generated some interest from U.S. schools. However, it was outstanding weekend games against Cowichan Valley and Wenatchee that happened to have a RIT scout in attendance that resulted in a scholarship offer. Hansen-Bukata visited the school in February and was impressed with the environment.
“The rink is unbelievable and the school has everything I need. What really impressed me was the small class sizes,” he said. “I always want to put education before hockey. Both my parents are teachers and, at the end of the day, that’s what I want to do too. But right now I’m looking at business management or communications.”
Hansen-Bukata is pleased he gets to have a leadership role in his final season of junior with Nanaimo before taking his game south. The plan over the next few months is to work on his shot and add more weight to his six-foot frame. According to his coach, that could lead to even more opportunities.
“He just needs to get stronger,” added Naylor. “I really believe if he makes that commitment to building up his strength he could be looking at an NHL contract.”