An Island Paradise
Wolfe Island, Ontario, is home to roughly 1400 residents. Like countless others across the country, theirs is a tight knit community, built on trust, honesty and hard work.
In many ways it was growing up amidst this backdrop that allowed Jim Hulton to transition to life on another island – Price Edward Island – rather seamlessly.
“It’s been a natural fit,” Hulton says in reference to making his way to Charlottetown, where he took over the coaching reigns of the Islanders in July of 2015. “The similarities [between the two places] are endless. Both are very grassroots and have a great sense of community. People have your back.”
That sense of community has also served the Islanders bench boss – who added the title of General Manager after his first season in Charlottetown – very well in the dressing room.
Take this season, for example. The Islanders, coming off a 46-win season and a berth in the President Cup semi-finals for the first time in their history, were not expected by most to be a threat as the 2017-18 campaign commenced. Instead, they’re a constant in the top half of the league standings and are among the most difficult squads to face off against night in and night out.
Hulton’s message to his team at the start of the season was simple.
“We knew what was being said,” Hulton recalls. “We decided to focus in-house and control what we could control. I think some people forgot who we had coming back to our team and what they were capable of doing. We just decided to have fun with [the situation] and prove people wrong.”
Though some may have forgotten the quality of players making their way back to PEI this season, Hulton was very much aware of not only who was returning but what they brought to the organization.
“We have such terrific leadership,” Hulton remarked. “It’s actually as strong as any leadership group I’ve seen. Guys like P.-O. Joseph, Pascal Aquin and Keith Getson, to name a few, were here last year and can draw of the experience of the playoff run we had. The level of expectation has really been set with those guys.”
In addition to that talented leadership core, a pair of players from last season’s squad are embracing their elevated roles this year. Goaltender Matthew Welsh and defenseman Hunter Drew appeared in a combined three games for the Islanders during their 2017 playoff run. Returning as key components of the 2017-18 club gave both players an opportunity to both prove themselves and justify the trust instilled in them by Hulton and his staff.
“Matt joined the team the same season I did and it’s been great to watch his growth as a player and a person,” Hulton said of his starting netminder. “He’s got so much confidence. We took a bit of a gamble when we dealt [Marc Grametbauer to Moncton]. But for Matt, this is a culmination of a lot of preparation. He’s a student of the game and has a tremendous work ethic.”
“Hunter is a terrific story,” Hulton explained of the blueliner. “He came to us as something of an unknown commodity but we were impressed with his raw skill. He never complained when he had to sit out last year and just upped his work ethic. He’s out there in all situations and is very hard to play against.”
But it’s not just his players that have been opportunistic this season. Hulton himself pounced on the chance to plug specific holes on his team during the Christmas trade period, acquiring a trio of forwards – Derek Gentile, Cam Askew and Daniel Hardie – in three separate, savvy deals.
For many years, winning in general didn’t appear to be an option for the Islanders. Hulton’s arrival occurred immediately following the franchise’s first playoff series victory in eleven years. It was a tough situation, but one made easier by the work of those around him.
“I was very fortunate coming here,” Hulton commented. “The table was set with Gordie Dwyer the year before as well as with Grant Sonier, who doesn’t get enough credit for where this team is today. Sometimes it takes a long time to break through. Now it’s a matter of maintaining things and making sure we’re not a one-off. We want to be among the league’s elite but we also realize that there’s a lot of work left to do.”
The work ethic instilled in Jim Hulton on his parent’s dairy farm on Wolfe Island has indeed served him well during his stay on Prince Edward Island. It’s also helped endear him and his family to a community whose hockey team is finally on a winning track.
“We’ve met many wonderful people here so far and hope to stay here for a long time,” he said.
Given Hulton’s propensity for winning, it’s a safe bet he’ll be welcomed on the island for as long as he wishes to stay.