Written by Judd Spicer
For all the physicality packed into his bruising 6-foot-3, 227 lb. frame, Firebirds’ center John Hayden would likely contend that his greatest strength lies amid the eight-inch spread beneath his CCM helmet.
A veteran of 240 productive NHL games for four teams (Blackhawks, Devils, Coyotes and Sabers), the 27-year-old Hayden signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Kraken this past July. His desert time represents but his second career stint in the AHL.
Hayden by no means looks at his maiden Firebirds’ flight as any sort of pro demotion.
“It’s been great so far. Of course, my goal in training camp was to make Seattle’s team, but that wasn’t the reality of it,” says Hayden, who has authored 20 points (nine goals and 11 assists) in the Firebirds’ first 27 games. “So, the right choice is to be where your feet are; and it’s been easy to do that here with (head coach) Dan (Bylsma) and the whole staff making it fun to come to the rink. This is a great group we’ve got; a really solid combination of veterans and younger guys.”
Akin to his CV teammates, Hayden enthuses that the chance to play for a fresh franchise in a new, state-of-the-art arena presents an elevated AHL experience.
“The organization is doing everything the right way,” he adds. “We have a ton of resources, we’re getting treated very well and the guys are starting to get used to the sun and desert lifestyle.”
Coupled with his own appreciation for SoCal, Hayden isn’t using the valley experience to work on his tan.
“This is a great chance for me to keep working on different facets of my game. (Assistant coach) Stu (Bickel) is running the kill, and that’s something I’m really focused on a lot,” continues Hayden, whose penchant for physicality has always been a playing staple. “I’m not on the power play right now, so I take a ton of pride in the kill, which was part of my role when I broke into the NHL. I always want that to be an important part of my game.”
Previous to his time in pro hockey, the man born on Valentine’s Day paired his puck love with an equal adoration – education.
From 2013-17, Hayden preceded his pro hockey journey as a student-athlete at Yale University.
“Credit to my mom for pushing Yale as the right choice,” the center says. “I was pretty young, a sophomore in high school, when I committed there. It’s tough to know at that age what’s the right path. But my mom had a really good pulse on things.”
A team captain in his senior season, Hayden would ultimately earn a degree in political science from Yale in ‘17, doing so as he was concurrently cutting chops amid his rookie season with the Blackhawks, which had selected him with the 74th pick in the 2013 draft.
Anticipating his pro debut in the spring, of ’17, Hayden frontloaded his courseload that previous fall.
“Being at Yale, it was all a really an important lesson in time management; really learning how to design your days, weeks and months,” he says. “One of the real benefits was that there’s a ton of accountability there, and you’re surrounded by examples of people working really hard. It was almost like a gut check.”
Ivy League grads, of course, are no stranger to pro hockey; last season, 20 Ivy Leaguers began the season on NHL rosters (Hayden among them with Buffalo).
But does a Yale mind seem a study in contrasts with a body that has amassed 283 penalty minutes in the NHL?
“I don’t really think about that too often,” says Hayden of brains and brawn. “The physicality has always been a part of my game, and I don’t think that those two attributes are exclusive in any way.”
Now in his seventh season of pro hockey, Hayden’s brain remains as inquisitive as ever. For interested players, the NHLPA presents a host of continuing education opportunities and Hayden’s furthering of mind and muscle is still very much his recipe for success.
“The road of development, as an athlete, as a human, it’s never-ending,” he says.
Beginning in the COVID season, Hayden took advantage of opportunities to learn off-ice.
“Some great options that the NHLPA has provided, a Harvard business course, a Stanford business course,” he explains. “If guys want to stay studious, they certainly have the opportunity. I just like to stay curious, a lot of things interest me and it’s a productive way to spend time when you’re on the road a lot. The one I’m working on now is a class from Stanford on business leadership.”
Matching ice with insight, Hayden has no plans to fully trade blades for books anytime soon. His Firebirds’ time is an experience he’s cherishing page-by-page.
“At the end of the day, it’s a blessing to be playing pro hockey, so I’ve got to take advantage of any opportunity I’m given,” he concludes. “We all have the ultimate goal of succeeding at the NHL level, but this is a step along the way. We all need to do our best to dominate at this step and let the rest take care of itself.”