|(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)|
As the Texas Stars franchise continues into its second decade, more and more players are calling it a career and opening the second act of their adult life. Derek Hulak is this week’s. After playing a handful of games in Switzerland this season, the Calder Cup winning forward is joining his college team as an assistant coach.
“I was fortunate enough to play for four years with the [WHL] Saskatoon Blades and four years with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies,” Hulak told 100 Degree Hockey when reached last week via Zoom. “For me to get an opportunity where you have the chance to coach, not only, your hometown team but also one that you've played for as well, and step into a role where you're having the opportunity to coach with and learn under someone like Mike Babcock, it almost seemed too good to be true.”
The fraternity of U of S players is a tight one. When Babcock reached out to Hulak, he had already put himself out there a bit as being interested but didn’t know if it was realistic to join the staff. In the end, he says it all came together pretty quickly.
He admits he is still processing the end of his career and stepping into the next segment of his life. “I've always had such great role models and positive influences in my life that I've been very fortunate to have lots of open lines of communications with people who have gone through this in the past and started to make their adjustment to not playing anymore.”
Looking back, he views his time in Texas very fondly, not only because of the Calder Cup but also because of the community feel that he got in Cedar Park, which reminded him a lot of the tight-knit feel of Saskatoon.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, you're going probably as far away as you possibly can, all the way down south. What's the crowd going to be like? Did they know about hockey down there?’
“Then [I had] this unbelievable experience where the building’s packed every night. It's loud. They love hockey down there and they're passionate fans. Having some great teams, having some personal success as well and just being able to dip my toes in and be part of that Calder Cup team, those are experiences I'll never forget and I'll always cherish.”
Perhaps Hulak’s most memorable experience was his first as a Texas Star, scoring his first pro goal in his first pro game on the anniversary of his mother’s passing. “Those are memories that are always associated with Texas. I don't think [retirement has] fully sunk in yet, but I know when I look back that those are going to be memories I remember forever.”
|(Credit: Michael Connell/Texas Stars)|
After leaving Texas, Hulak struggled with injuries and played with five AHL clubs from 2016-20, returning a few times to Cedar Park as an opponent of Texas, and finished his playing career with eight games in Switzerland this season.
Now Hulak switches to a much different life of coaching and even recruiting. However, he notes that the previously mentioned tight-knit alumni crew meant that he was already acting as a recruiter in some ways by being part of the broader community of alumni who support the school and help its student athletes. Hulak will be working under veteran head coach Mike Babcock and admits he has a lot to learn about coaching both him and associate coach Brandin Cote.
Overall, Hulak is excited to be a role model for many of the players he recruits and coaches. He took the less-traveled path of major junior to a Canadian college and made a career of it, winning a Calder Cup along the way. “I can relate to all these players that are currently at the University of Saskatchewan and players that I'm going to recruit. I’ve been through the process and I was very happy to make my decision to go to the U of S and was able to turn that into a professional career.”
Hulak is still going to have to get used to the coaching role, but he relayed a story of his final season in the AHL that helped to ease him a bit into knowing that he was in good company.
“My last few years in the American League, especially when I was in Manitoba, we were in the same division as Milwaukee and Texas. Lining up for a faceoff on the ice, I'm looking over and there's Greg Rallo on the bench for Milwaukee and Travis Morin on the bench of Texas. Those are my two linemates from my rookie year! It's amazing how fast it goes by. I was kind of getting bugged by some of the players on my team that you know you're getting old when your former linemates are now coaches.”
At the end of the call, as I thanked him for his time, I called him Coach Hulak. He noted it was perhaps the first time someone had called him that, but he admitted with a smile, “It’s got an interesting ring to it.”