By Tim Morris
Sometimes you have to step away from something to appreciate how much it means to you. Last year, Declan Hilton was in such a position.
“I was confused where my future stood with hockey and school (Carleton University),” recalled Hilton.
So, Hilton decided to leave hockey and go to college full time. Only he couldn’t give up the sport he’s been passionate about since his father Chris first put him on a pair of skates at 18 months on their backyard rink.
“By December (2017) I had some regrets about not playing hockey,” he explained. “I didn’t know how much I missed it until I stopped playing. I missed the structure and my buddies, my teammates,” he added.
Hilton played some Junior B hockey during what would be his year away from the sport just to stay active. His goal was to return to the Central Canada Hockey League for the 2018-19 season. He played in the CCHL for two years, one with the Brockville Braves and the other with the Kanata Lasers.
“I worked really hard over the summer,” Hilton remarked.
He was hoping for an opportunity at a second chance and it would come with the Ottawa Junior Senators. Hilton knew Ottawa captain Darcy Walsh, who reached out to GM/Coach Martin Dagenais, to garner an invitation for Hilton to attend club practices. Hilton knew what was at stake.
“I went in knowing I can’t mess up this time,” he remarked. He didn’t, impressing Dagenais who signed Hilton up for the Junior Senators 2018-19 season.
“I’m very lucky to be given this opportunity,” the 19-year-old said. “The guys helped me feel comfortable. I’m getting better day-to-day.”
Hilton was just one of several newcomers to Ottawa, last year’s CCHL champions. As expected, the new Junior Senators needed time to learn Dagenais’ system.
“We’re on the incline right now,” said Hilton. “There is so much potential on this team.”
Defense is the hallmark of the Junior Senators’ system.
“We put a lot of focus on what happens in the defensive end,” said Hilton. “We’re now a lot better at getting pucks out of the defensive zone, and our man-on-man coverage is improving every game. Defense wins championships, and we understand that.”
For the 5-11, 180-pound winger, who isn’t afraid to throw his weight around, he doesn’t have to be told twice to play defense. But, he is looking to be far more than a defensive forward. He can put the puck in the net and that’s something he’s looking to do more in the second half of the season as he gets more familiar with his linemates.
“Declan is a team first player who brings a physical element to our hockey club,” said Dagenais. “He’s a big forward and he’s at his best when he finishes his checks. We really think he can be a major factor for us in the playoffs as he’s the type of player that can make it tough on the opposition’s defencemen. His play without the puck has greatly improved since September, and we can now use him in all situations.”
“I’ve been more of a grinder,” Hilton said of his play in the first half of the season. “I’m looking to be more offensive. I can score. I have to be patient. It will come.”
With five goals and six assists thus far, Hilton sees no reason why he won’t be more productive.
“All my teammates are great players,” he noted. “We’ll find a way. I’m gaining confidence.”
Hilton has been a trailblazer for his younger brother Aidan, who plays defense for the CCHL’s Rockland Nationals. When the Junior Senators play the Nationals it takes on an extra edge for the Hiltons.
“It’s a bit of a rivalry,” Declan pointed out.
Hilton wants to help the Junior Senators repeat as Bogart Cup champions this year. His next goal is Division I college hockey.
“I want to be at the top level,” he said.
Now that is has been confirmed how much hockey means to him, Hilton wants to play it for as long as he can at the highest level.