Nathan Hughes grew up in a place without rinks, skate shops or snow.
The Cayman Islands native didn’t really play ice hockey until he arrived at St Johnsbury Academy as a sophomore.
Now a senior, he has come a long way in a short time.
The 18-year-old will start in the net when the Hilltoppers open their season Saturday night at Hartford.
The secret to his improbable journey from the Caribbean to the crease? Determination.
“At the end of the day, he’s persevered through a lot,” said his father, Scott. “He’s proven that he’s got grit.”
Hughes showed plenty of toughness two years ago.
His 2018-19 season was cut short by two major surgeries: One to remove a large brain tumor and the other to repair a significant curvature of his back.
It was a grueling, frustrating and exhausting time for Hughes and his family.
Hockey was a motivator. He scheduled the surgeries close together so that he wouldn’t miss hockey season. After months of rehab, he was back on the ice that fall.
And tonight he makes his first career start for St. J.
“When he wants to do something, he’s not going to let any obstacle get in his way,” said his mother, Julie.
Hughes’ parents moved to the Cayman Islands from Ottawa, Ontario.
The Canadians brought along their love of hockey.
His father Scott continued to follow the NHL (particularly the Ottawa Senators) and joined a roller hockey league — the only stick-and-puck activity available in the tropical getaway.
Hughes followed suit. He watched games with his father and began roller hockey as a 6-year-old forward.
He transitioned to goal around age 9. He learned the fundamentals from his dad (a former hockey and lacrosse netminder) and modeled himself after his favorite NHL goaltender (two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick of the L.A. Kings). By age 12 he was reffing games.
While his younger sister, Norah pursued “island sports” like diving and equestrian, Hughes competed in international roller hockey tournaments and dreamed of trading in his wheels for blades.
“He was begging us for years. He wanted to go play hockey. He wanted to go away to school,” said his mother. “We were like ‘we’re Canadian, we don’t send our kids away to boarding school.’ It took a bit more than him just wanting to play hockey for us to send him off to the states.”
That ‘bit more’ was academics.
Hughes struggled in the classroom. He was a hands-on learner, but the Caymans didn’t offer vocational training. So his parents looked into boarding schools that did.
They discovered St. Johnsbury Academy.
At the Academy, Hughes immersed himself in the school’s woodworking, welding automotive and building trades programs. He plans to pursue a career as a contractor.
“That’s the main reason we sent him to St. Johnsbury. For him to find his passion, what he wants to do with his life,” his mother said. “It’s the best decision we ever made.”
During his first season with the Hilltoppers, Hughes’ coaches noticed his crooked posture.
Doctors discovered he had severe scoliosis. His spine bent 80 degrees at the bottom. The family found a specialist who could correct the problem and allow Hughes to continue with hockey.
During pre-surgical screening, an MRI uncovered a brain tumor. It was a benign acoustic neuroma, a slow-growing tumor in the inner ear. Doctors described it as “giant” and surgery posed a danger to his facial nerves.
Until then, he had unknowingly adapted to those health issues.
“If we didn’t send him up to St. Johnsbury, I’m not sure they would’ve been found,” his mother said.
Hughes wanted to get back to hockey. So the surgeries were scheduled as soon as possible.
The brain surgery took place in February 2019 in Chicago. He spent the following four weeks in the hospital. He lost hearing in his right ear and dealt with balance issues. His recovery was difficult, requiring one ER visit.
“I know the whole time after the brain surgery … just imagine having a severe migraine for weeks on end. That’s what he was going through,” said his father.
The back surgery took place in Fort Lauderdale in May. It required another four weeks of in-patient care. His rehab began the day following his operation.
“I went through four months of physiotherapy for my back,” he said, noting that he attacked his rehab — sometimes too hard. “My parents told me 100 times to get back in bed. I was really ambitious.”
Nathan stayed calm throughout the surgeries and recoveries.
“He definitely just focused on what needed to be done. He never cried, he never freaked out, he didn’t show worry,” said his mother, adding, “He was phenomenally strong. I don’t know many kids or adults who could have put up with what he had to go through twice, with both surgeries, the way he did.”
Meanwhile, Hughes was supported by his teammates and coaches. The Hilltoppers sported Cayman Island stickers on their helmets. They fueled his desire to come back.
He returned to the ice in November.
“He was playing hockey in six months, it was incredible,” said his mother. “The fact that he was out there and able to participate was quite impressive.”
Hughes didn’t go home for Christmas.
Even with high school hockey postponed during COVID-19, he didn’t want to risk four weeks of quarantine (two in the Cayman Islands, two upon his return to St. J) in case practices were cleared to begin.
“He made a very big sacrifice over the Christmas holiday, he and his family decided — not even knowing if the season would start — that he would stay here,” said St. J Head Coach Dick Emery. “That’s pretty admirable.”
Over the past two seasons, Hughes had been a backup goaltender on St. J’s depth chart, behind Garrett Rice and Matthew Monaghan as a sophomore, and Rice and David Hutchison as a junior.
He never showed frustration. Instead, he worked at his craft. His work ethic impressed his coaches. Now he steps into the starting role.
“Any kid that’s gone through what he’s gone through, the fact that he’s back and still working to get better is pretty impressive. I hold him in high regard for his tenacity to continue on his hockey journey,” Emery said.
Emery was cautious with Hughes after his surgeries. Maybe too cautious, he admits.
But he remembers a time last season when he inserted Hughes into a late-season game and the goaltender practically danced with joy. At that moment, Emery realized Hughes was going to be OK.
“I’m excited to see how he does in a game role. We’ve worked hard in the last two-and-a-half years to coach him. Hopefully, he’s ready to go. He’s going to be on a steep learning curve as a starting goalie and what that entails. It’s going to be exciting to see how he responds to that,” Emery said.
St. J will play a COVID-19 shortened eight-game schedule. Their home ice at Fenton Chester Arena is closed during the pandemic, so the Hilltoppers have divided practices between Hartford, Barre, and an outdoor rink installed on St. J Academy’s Cary Field.
The adversity has strengthened team bonds.
“I feel like it made the team more of a team,” Hughes said, adding that, “I’m just glad [Vermont] got the season to start, and actually gave us a chance. I wish they did it sooner but at least it’s happening.”
Vermont began no-contact practices on Dec. 26 and full-contact drills/intrasquad scrimmages Jan. 18. Indoor sports were allowed to begin competitions Friday. Masks are required and no spectators will be allowed.
Hughes is grateful to play under any circumstances, pandemic or not. He’s passionate about hockey, and he has the scars to prove it. Two years after spinal surgery, he’s ready to put the team on his back.
“I feel like I’m getting better everyday,” he said.