Kyle Hagel and Joey Tenute know just how lucky they are. It isn't every day that pro hockey players get to take to the ice in their hometown.
But these two Hamilton natives are part of the backbone of a very young Hamilton Bulldogs squad — and they couldn't be happier about it. In fact, their appreciation for the city is palpable when they speak.
"I love it here," Hagel told CBC Hamilton. "You meet people here who are very unique — maybe because of the leftover vestiges of that working class background. It's gritty but beautiful."
Tenute has played all over, from Europe to the U.S. "But nothing is like coming home," the centreman said.
'I remember when I was younger they looked so big, so strong, so fast. It's cool to be one of those guys now.'—Joey Tenute, Hamilton Bulldogs
"You can't describe being home and playing hockey — the sport you love — at the same time."
Though both players got their start in minor hockey in Hamilton, they never really played with or against each other — save for the "extremely competitive" four-on-four summer league at the Mohawk 4 Ice Centre.
Hagel got his start playing at the Lawfield Arena, then moved over to the Chedoke Twin Pad arena before playing AA and AAA hockey in the city. The left-winger played with the Rockford IceHogs and the Peoria Rivermen before signing with Hamilton in the summer.
Tenute is even more well travelled. He started off in the Mountain Arena house league before playing select for the Mountain Blues and the Mountain Hornets. Early in his AHL career, Tenute skated with the Hershey Bears and the San Antonio Rampage before moving on to play in Europe for the past four seasons. He started with the Bulldogs on a professional tryout contract on Jan. 8 and joined officially on Jan. 31.
An eye to the future
Hagel and Tenute are only the third and fourth hometown players to ever lace up with the Bulldogs.
They both went to games at Copps growing up — balancing around their own very busy minor hockey league schedules. Both players sat in the stands with an eye to the future.
"I used to come watch the games with some friends or my dad — watching and learning and kind of hoping that one day I could be a pro hockey player like them," Tenute said. "I remember when I was younger they looked so big, so strong, so fast."
"It's cool to be one of those guys now."
Hagel and Tenute are both on the team in a veteran capacity — at 29, Tenute is the oldest player on the roster. With that experience comes certainty as to their respective roles on a Bulldogs squad that has struggled through much of this season.
"I'm a fourth line gritty guy. That's part of my job — to stick up for guys and spark some energy," Hagel said. "If we're losing or the team isn't playing too well, I'll try to spark some energy if we come out kind of flat."
Anyone wondering about Hagel's prowess when dropping the gloves needs only to watch this video in which he lines up with the IceHogs' Brandon Bollig:
Tenute, who is playing his ninth year of pro hockey, says he just tries to be a leader in the dressing room and a good teammate.
"First and foremost I think I'm here to provide offence," he said. "But as I've gotten older I think I've become a guy who can be a good two-way player."
The two have settled into those roles fairly well. Tenute has managed two goals and five assists in 14 games this season, while Hagel has answered the bell whenever needed and racked up 132 penalty minutes in 41 games.
And the team — which has languished in the AHL basement for much of the season — is starting to click. They've won four games in a row and seem to be building momentum as a grinding, hard-checking team.
"We just want to do our part, and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks," Tenute said. "When we finish our checks and play with some edge, we're a hard team to play against."
And while a run to the playoffs would be difficult —like wining three-quarters of your remaining games difficult — the two hometown boys are still hoping for good things to close out the season.
"We're still in it," Tenute said.
"We talk everyday about good habits and just having a winning attitude."