On the day of her son’s first NHL game, Christine Hodgson received a good luck text from Kelly McDavid, just one of the many people who have been there for Hayden Hodgson along his long, arduous journey to the NHL.

“I said now I know what the McDavid’s feel like every night,” Christine said. “The whole town [of Windsor, Ontario] is just buzzing.”

Kelly’s son, Connor, 25, is already considered one of the greatest to ever play the game. The 26-year-old Hodgson, meanwhile, has been grinding and clawing through a hockey journey that has featured obstacles at every turn.

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On March 21, Hodgson’s perseverance and hard work was rewarded as he signed his first NHL contract with the Flyers. Three days later, his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL was finally realized against the St. Louis Blues.

Just as several of his friends had bet, Hodgson scored a goal (and had an assist) in a dream NHL debut, even winning some of his friends a few hundred dollars for good measure.

Hodgson’s family got to see it in person. His best friend, Devon Paliani, watched online and texted Hayden’s mom, “Is anybody else crying right now? Because I am.”

Paliani was far from the only emotional viewer. Phantoms coach Ian Laperriére watched on his iPad like a “proud papa,” Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr recalled.

After five NHL games and three more in the AHL, Hodgson suffered an undisclosed injury and will miss the remainder of the season. But having seen Hodgson go from American Hockey League-longshot to the NHL, Flahr believes “he’s up for the challenge” of trying to make the team next season.

‘Obviously that stung’

At 16, Hodgson was drafted to the Ontario Hockey League and moved from his home in Windsor to Erie, Pa. It was hard on his mother, especially that first year. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Hodgson played for three OHL teams, including the Erie Otters, where he played with McDavid, the Sarnia Sting and the Saginaw Spirit.

“You got to be positive about it,” Christine said.

Staying positive began to take more and more strength. In 2014, when Hodgson turned 18, he became eligible for the NHL draft. Whereas the OHL draft gave him the confidence to focus on hockey, the NHL draft ended in disappointment, as Hodgson went unselected.

“Obviously, that stung, not getting drafted, but that opportunity was not at that time,” Hodgson said. “The whole mindset was to work and put your head down and do whatever it takes to make it to NHL.”

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Hodgson planned to enroll at the University of New Brunswick to continue to develop his game while getting an education. But he got a last-minute opportunity with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, which would give him exposure to coaches at the next level.

While at their training camp, Hodgson impressed enough to be selected to play in a Blue Jackets’ preseason game. Hodgson’s friends and family thought that this was his chance, but he got injured prior to the game and returned to school. Eventually, he got another call from the Monsters asking him to come play in the AHL.

So close, yet so far

Hodgson’s hopes of parlaying his time with the Monsters into an NHL chance did not pan out. Instead, the season went poorly, and he ended up dropping down to the East Coast Hockey League, the third tier of professional hockey in North America.

Over the next two seasons, he played for four teams — the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, Manchester Monarchs and Wichita Thunder, and HC 07 Detva of Slovakia. The salaries were never enough to keep Hodgson afloat, so he worked odd jobs in the summers, from driving construction equipment to selling fish to bussing tables.

“That was pretty humbling,” said Paliani, who bussed tables with him.

Hodgson ended up with the ECHL’s Reading Royals for the 2019-2020 season. Under coach Kirk MacDonald, things felt like they were finally starting to click. Then he took a hit along the boards.

Christine, who was working a night shift, got a message from her husband that Hayden had broken his leg. She called her parents, who were watching, and heard as the announcers described the blood seeping onto the ice. Next thing she knew, Hayden was getting rushed to the emergency room. The opponent’s skate had slashed his leg.

“He just called me out of the blue ... and he was in a hospital,” Paliani said. “I was kind of just freaking out for a second.”

At the beginning of his recovery, Hodgson could barely get out of bed. He watched The Sopranos many times over, which Paliani takes credit for, and his teammates would swing by when they could. They’d load him in the car and take him to the rink to watch practice. Those moments were the highlights of his days.

Hodgson’s helplessness and frustration soon morphed into determination, and he fought his way back on the ice within two months.

And then the world stopped. COVID-19 swept across the globe, pausing sports. When hockey returned, the Royals elected to opt out of the 2020-2021 season. Since Reading held his rights, Hodgson was stuck until they worked out a deal for him to play for another team. Even then, the season did not go smoothly as Hodgson was traded from the Wheeling Nailers to the Utah Grizzlies.

”That whole year and a half, two years was crazy for me,” Hodgson said.

Just as he was going to settle back into Reading, MacDonald told him the Phantoms needed bodies for their training camp since so many players were at Flyers camp. It would be Hodgson’s first look from an AHL team since 2017-18.

“That summer, I kind of just put my head down and said, hey, you know what, listen, something major happened to you,” Hodgson said. “Let’s battle back from this and overcome it and try and come back stronger.”

One last try

As Hodgson drove to Lehigh Valley, he was determined but also realistic.

“He wasn’t sure where his hockey career was going,” said Paliani. “He had just played four years in the minors. He was like ‘This might be my last training camp.’ ”

Hodgson’s tryout did not get off to a good start. He failed one of the physical tests and had to sit out the first two days.

Laperrière was not impressed. Knowing he was getting players back from Flyers camp, he was ready to count Hodgson out. But after passing his physical, Hodgson began to impress.

“When you looked at him in camp, he’s a big body,” Flahr said. “He can skate, he can shoot. You’re kind of waiting for the floor to drop.”

But it never did. Now, Laperrière looks back and laughs at the fact that he’d “never heard of him. Didn’t know who he was.” Hodgson’s heard that many times .

“A lot of people that I’ve talked to you, they don’t really understand that side of it.” Hodgson said. “You know, they kind of say, hey, what’s been going on? Where have you been? Lost?”

Hodgson earned himself a two-way AHL contract out of camp and soon established himself as one the Phantoms’ top players. At the time of his March 23 recall, Hodgson was tied for the team lead with 18 goals.

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Isaac Ratcliffe, who played on the Phantoms’ third line with him, was surprised at just how strong Hodgson is and how his “motor just doesn’t stop.”

But despite Laperrière repeatedly praising him to Flyers management, Hodgson was passed over each time for an NHL call-up.

‘Hope’ for the future

On March 21, Laperrière called Hodgson, asking if he could swing by the rink.

When he arrived, Laperrière broke the news that Hodgson’s agent and the Flyers were working out an NHL deal.

“The kid couldn’t stop smiling,” Laperrière said.

.

All Laperrière’s mentions of Hodgson’s coachability had not gone unnoticed. Nor had Hodgson’s dramatic improvement since Flahr saw him play in juniors.

“[But] the best call to make was two days later,” Laperrière said. After previously calling eight different forwards with the news they were being called up to the Flyers, on March 23, Laperrière finally dialed Hodgson’s number.

Hodgson was off to St. Louis.

Hodgson’s teammates were ecstatic. Flahr said sometimes players get upset they’re not the one called up, but everyone was genuinely happy for Hodgson given his story.

Ratcliffe confirmed that, saying due to his personality, sense of humor, and infectious, “little funny smile,” Hodgson is a favorite with everyone.

The Phantoms players gathered in a hotel room to watch Hodgson’s debut together. When he scored in his debut, they texted him excitedly. When he got in a fight in his third game, they worriedly watched as he fell and cheered as he bounced back up. Hodgson provides hope for all of them, drafted or not.

“It just shows no matter what you come from, the mindset can’t change when you go into work every day,” Ratcliffe said. “He literally earned every opportunity just by his work ethic and mindset.”

Laperrière said Hodgson is exactly the type of story the organization should be promoting. Things are finally clicking for him, and if they continue to, Ratcliffe said he can see Hodgson being an example of what “Flyers hockey” looks like. Flahr said he has what it takes to become a fan favorite.

Despite Hodgson’s season-ending injury his story is far from over.

“He’s coming into camp next year to make the team,” Flahr said. “See where he came in this year, just hoping to get a few games in the American League to making the team to hopefully stepping into the NHL.”

”At the very least, it’s going to give him hope.”