By John DeCoste
Most players on Junior A hockey rosters will have come up through the minor hockey ranks and have either AA or AAA experience in both Bantam and Midget. Some will even have had tryouts with Major Junior teams.
Kentville native Brady Atwater, a first-year defenceman with the Valley Junior A Wildcats, is the exception to the rule.
A different path
After playing minor hockey up to Grade 9, Brady chose the high school route, and spent three successful - and personally fulfilling - seasons with the NKEC Titans.
“When I moved from KCA to NKEC in Grade 9, a lot of my friends tried out for and made the hockey team,” Atwater explained. “I was still playing Bantam.
“The next year, when I was in Grade 10, my friends convinced me to play high school. I played three years, and I have no regrets. We were provincial champions in both Grade 10 and 11, and provincial runners-up (losing by one goal) in Grade 12.”
During his time at NKEC, Atwater “developed a pretty solid relationship” with his coaches. Colin Duncan was the NKEC head coach for all three years. Assistant coach John Curry was the defence coach, and, for his Grade 12 year, Atwater’s dad Derek came on board as a second assistant.
Along the way, Atwater developed into a pretty good blueliner, and was co-winner of the VHSHL Top Defenceman award for 2012-2013.
“I had a ball playing high school in front of my friends,” he says. “We had good teams, and the whole school was behind us.”
Looking back, he adds, “I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
Asked if he felt the stability he enjoyed during his high school career made him a better defenceman, he replied, “I think it did.”
Actually, he pointed out, he “was a forward for three-quarters of the season in Grade 10. One game, we were playing Bridgewater down there and beating them pretty badly. I asked Colin if he’d let me play defence, and he agreed. I scored two goals before the game was over, and I’ve never played forward since.”
Atwater credits Curry for “working really hard with me to make me a better defenceman,” work that paid off with the Top Defenceman award.
That Atwater chose to play high school hockey didn’t mean he didn’t attract the attention of the Midget AAA Wildcats.
“I got offered a spot with Midget AAA in both Grade 11 and 12, but I was happy and having fun where I was, and I’d become pretty close with my high school coaches.”
This summer, after graduating from NKEC in June, Atwater decided to try out for the new Valley Junior A team. He recalls there were more than 20 defencemen in camp, including three or four returnees who were pretty much guaranteed spots.
“I fought my way through camp, and each week, it got harder,” he said.
In the end, it came down to “a group of us battling for the final two spots. In the final tryout game, I thought I had played well, and after the game, (head coach) Nick (Greenough) offered me a job.”
These days, hockey takes a lot of his time. Atwater is also working part-time for Kentville Parks and Recreation after working there full-time there during the summer.
He is finding Junior A hockey “quite a change from high school,” but he is happy with his role and how he has played thus far.
“It’s what I expected it would be, and definitely something any player could look forward to. I’m liking it.”
Junior A, he says, is much better hockey.
“You have to be aware of where you are on the ice at all times. In high school, you had more time to think,” he said.
As for where he would like to go from here, Atwater’s future options could include college or university. For now, he is planning to play Junior A as long as he’s able, and beyond that, he hasn’t thought much about it. At this level, he adds, it’s pretty much full-time hockey.
“I’m pretty happy where I am right now,” says the 18-year-old. “I’m pretty much living the dream.”
By the numbers…
Who: Brady Atwater
Team: Valley Junior A Wildcats
Weight: 155 lbs
Season so far: Six games played, two assists, four penalty minutes.