By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – The Reading Royals are a unique cocktail of distinct personalities, a mixture that somehow manages to blend together as smoothly as vodka and Red Bull, with just as much kick.
Tyler Hanchuck stands out as one of the more interesting characters in the locker room, however.
The 23-year-old defenseman tends to do things his own way, whether it’s with his fighting style (he squares up with one fist fully extended), his celebrations (Hanchuck went berserk after scoring his first pro goal Dec. 3 against Toledo), or his wardrobe.
“Hanny’s a quirky guy,” Royals coach Karl Taylor said. “He marches to his own drum here and there with his outfits and his clothes and his hats. I give him a hard time sometimes.”
When Taylor invented the Reggie Dunlop Award last month an old leather jacket like the one Paul Newman wore in “Slap Shot” gets passed around after each win to the hardest-working player he immediately feared the day Hanchuck would win it.
“He’s the one guy I have to watch,” Taylor said. “He might steal the Reggie Dunlop coat because it fits into his closet like a glove.
“He’s a real good fella. The guys can always count on him.”
The Royals have leaned on Hanchuck the past two months when AHL call-ups have left the team short-handed. The unprecedented amount of ice time has sparked a growth in his confidence and helped make him one of the Royals’ most improved players thus far.
He’s making better decisions, making better first passes, playing more firmly on the blue line and developing as a leader. He’s also mixing with gritty players such as Malcolm MacMillan, Doug Christiansen and Jeff State to add an element of toughness to the team.
After last Saturday’s big 3-1 win against Wheeling, Royals leading scorer Mike Kompon pointed to Hanchuck as the guy who should have been written about. Hanchuck set up a short-handed goal and was a key facet of the penalty-kill unit.
“Personally, I think I’ve come along like anybody else,” Hanchuck said. “Maybe the guys think a little more than the average. But I’ve been working on personal skills and really mentally working on things, which I think is the first step at getting better at anything.
“I think I’m getting the opportunity here to be better.”
After deciding to spend last season in the Central Hockey League with the Topeka Tarantulas, Hanchuck got an invite to Los Angeles Kings camp this fall. He played well enough to earn an AHL contract with the Manchester Monarchs, who assigned the 6-3 Ontario native to Reading.
Hanchuck is looking at this season as an opportunity to develop into a player who can earn significant time at the AHL level in the future.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve been up and down,” he said. “I’m hoping to stay up. I mentally plan on staying this way. But my ultimate goal is to win this year with the team.”
It was a funny string of events that brought him here. Back in 2000, when he was more of a brawling, stay-at-home guy, Hanchuck was taken in the third round of the NHL draft by Montreal. Just 18 at the time, he decided to spend another three seasons at the junior level.
“I think I did what I was only capable of doing at the time,” Hanchuck said. “I’m no (Sidney) Crosby or anybody of that type of skill. There was no way I could play in the show at such a young age.”
After turning pro in 2003, he spent most of his rookie season in the AHL with Albany. Recruited by several teams in several leagues before last season, he decided to play in the lesser-regarded CHL.
During the recruiting process, the coaching staff at Topeka won over Hanchuck, who was without an agent at the time, with their personable, laid-back attitude.
“I was looking to have a lot of fun,” he said. “I wanted to have a good season, I wanted to enjoy hockey, take the business aspect out of it and have more fun.
“I was looking to have some fun and, of course, they threw a couple bucks at me.”
Though he’s been told by several “hockey people” that playing in the CHL wasn’t a good move, Hanchuck has no regrets. Nor does he have any regrets about not going pro after being drafted or any other move that he’s made.
Typical of his personality, Hanchuck has followed a unique course. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m happy to where I’m at today,” he said. “I met a lot of great people along the way and I wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m working hard. Hopefully things just keep working out for me.”