PHOTO: Tami Quan
This is the second of four instalments highlighting the graduating 20-year-old players from the Warriors roster, continuing with forward Rylee Hlusiak
Junior hockey can be a tough transition for players and where some play before making that jump can shape how that experience is. For Rylee Hlusiak, that journey began at Ridley College, located in St. Catharines, Ontario and just under a two hour drive away from his home town of Barrie. The move meant that growing up happened fast and learning the balance of school, hockey and other responsibilities.
“It was great for academics at Ridley and the hockey was really good as well,” explained Hlusiak, “It got me away from my parents at a young age which helped me learn my responsibilities in terms of schooling and hockey.”
Following two seasons at Ridley College and after playing in 20 or so exhibition games at the Junior level, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of hockey and many things around the world. Despite being forced to be at home, Hlusiak actually saw it as a benefit to his game and an opportunity to hone his skills with a longer “off-season”.
“We didn’t have anything to do really except for a bit of school work each day so I went to outdoor rinks and I was working out every day so I think it helped my career a lot,” said Hlusiak, “I got a lot better in the off-season just because it was such a long period of time.”
“When I got a little bit of a taste of the speed in those exhibition games, I went home and realized I had to get a lot faster and a lot stronger and I think I really took advantage of that time,” Hlusiak continued, “It was almost like a seamless jump to Junior hockey and the Canadian Central Hockey League (CCHL) at that point.”
When the time came for Hlusiak to suit up in his first full season of Junior hockey with the Hawksbury Hawks, the 5’9″, 179-pounder made his impression in leading the team in scoring with 29 goals and 68 points in 49 games played during the 2021/22 season while adding 9 points in a lengthy playoff run that saw Hawksbury fall just short of a CCHL title.
“We had a great team and I was on a line with two 20-year-olds that really helped me out a lot,” Hlusiak recalls from his first season of Junior hockey, “They really helped me push the offensive side of my game and I learned a lot from them in terms of work ethic and stuff like that. It was great going deep in the playoffs and I had a lot of fun with those guys.”
Coming into the summer of 2022, Hlusiak was set to return to Hawksbury for a second season, “My school said Simon(Ferguson) had reached out to them and I didn’t think much of it,” said Hlusiak, “I was getting calls from other teams to leave the CCHL but I had a great relationship with my coach so I really didn’t want to leave.”
Rick Dorval, the head coach and general manager of the Hawks at the time, took a job in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Sudbury Wolves. With Dorval moving on, Hlusiak put a bit more thought into those phone calls from West Kelowna, “I knew I was going to move on from Hawksbury after that happened,” said Hlusiak, “I thought about it for a few days and called Simon back to let him know I was interested in coming.”
Coming to the BCHL from Ontario is something a fair amount of players from Eastern Canada have done and Hlusiak was excited to spend his final season of Junior hockey in the Central Okanagan, “I was a little nervous at first,” Hlusiak said, “The first few weeks I realized I could play out here and everyone in the league are really good players. It’s definitely a lot faster and everything around the league is just a lot more intense in terms of the fans and the community aspect.”
Hlusiak threw together a solid season with the Warriors, scoring 22 goals and 51 points in all 54 games during the regular season and was especially effective in the final month of play in March where he tallied 7 goals and 6 assists for 13 points in just 8 games throughout the month. There were a lot of memorable moments for Hlusiak, who scored many big goals down the stretch, but he had a couple that came to mind rather easily.
“Against Nanaimo (March 18th), obviously we didn’t win that game but at the end of regulation, scoring that goal to tie it was pretty cool and having a few of my buddies on the other team was special too. Another goal I scored late in the game against Trail (February 24th) and we went on to win in overtime and that was a lot of fun with a comeback win so things like that I will remember forever because it was so much fun.”
The Warriors were a team affected the most by injuries this season, losing many players to tough scenarios and was a learning experience for Hlusiak and his teammates, “We learned a lot from guys leaving the lineup and guys coming in but with this group being so close, we were able to welcome new guys in and I think it kind of felt like they were apart of the family right away,” Hlusiak explained, “I think that is something we did a really good job at and it would help us out on the ice as well when they would come into the lineup and work hard.”
Fan support and having the community behind the team is something that Hlusiak also held closely after his time in West Kelowna, “I’ve never really experienced a fan base like this before,” Hlusiak said, “It’s so much more fun to play at home when you know you’ve got 1,500 fans in the building making it super loud with kids all over the place, asking for your stick or autograph makes it a lot of fun and definitely helped the team on the ice.”
“We would say after games that we can’t wait come back home and play at RLP because that was a really big help for our team,” Hlusiak continued, “Having great fans like Brendan Ritchie coming to every game, he gives us a huge boost when he comes in the locker room after the game and whether it’s a win or loss, he has a smile on his face. People like that who show non-stop support for our team are a huge help.”
Hlusiak will take those memories and experiences into college hockey and getting ready to suit up for Sacred Heart University and the Pioneers come this fall.
“I’m super excited to see their new rink in person and really looking forward to get started with the program,” said Hlusiak, “Looking forward to getting back to school and getting back in the classroom, I think my brain needs it a little bit after a few years off but I really can’t wait for the summer to be over and get there.”