WASHINGTON, D.C. — Taking the ice at Medstar Capitals Iceplex for his first Washington Capitals rookie camp, Bear Hughes was nervous. The long-time pro didn’t know exactly what to expect but quickly appeared to feel right at home in D.C.
“Coming into camp, I had a lot of nerves, a little bit of anxiety. The hardest thing for me was to just come in and meet all the guys and the training staff for the first time. But Saturday went really well, just meeting everybody, coming to the rink and seeing the facility, started off great.”
The 20-year-old grew up in Post Falls, Idaho, right near Coeur d’Alene. He was the sixth of 10 siblings, including seven brothers and three sisters. His real name: Cassius Hughes, but he’s always been Bear. In fact, he didn’t know that his name was Cassius until elementary school, when after hearing his mom call the school and tell them Cassius will be absent, asked who that was. It was him.
Hockey’s not big up in the northern part of the state; only two NHL players have hailed from Idaho: Pat Shea in 1932 and Guyle Fielder in 1957. Combined, they produced one point through 19 games. But Hughes’ family was able to make the most of what they had. His father, Vince, got together with a group of friends and bought an ice rink, where Bear and his siblings found their calling.
“We didn’t play the highest levels growing up… I was able to get on the ice a lot and the ice was in all year round. So summer and winter, I was home, I got to live at home, play hockey.”
Hughes then worked his way up the ranks, playing in Idaho leagues before taking his talents to Spokane. Eventually, he lacing ’em up with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. He was unrated by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service heading into his rookie season but worked his way onto the radar. Hughes dished 16 goals and 47 points in 61 games with Spokane. Elite Prospects even called him… well… a “bear on the puck.” And that impressive puck-carrying ability and production led the Capitals to take him in the fifth round of the 2020 NHL Draft.
“It’s all kind of been a blur since then,” Hughes noted.
No. 55 admitted that COVID-19 did pose an obstacle. With the season paused and rinks closed, Hughes headed home to Idaho, grabbing his keys to his father’s rink and getting on the ice when he could.
“I was able to get on the ice a lot more than most guys during the whole thing. Especially the guys in Canada, there’s a lot more of a lockdown, but in Idaho, it wasn’t so bad,” Hughes noted, adding, “We didn’t get to play as many games last year. I was more fortunate.”
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In 2020-21, with the WHL still in flux, Hughes elected to play in the USHL with the Fargo Force. He recorded nine goals and 24 points in 35 games and got to work more on his two-way game.
“The WHL is a lot more offensive, but playing in [the USHL], it’s a lot more defensive and not as high scoring, so helped me out a lot there,” Hughes explained.
That first Capitals camp, though, was quite a different experience for the 6-foot-1, 171-pound forward. He noticed a much faster, more physical game being played and had something of an epiphany.
“The pace of the skates is really good. Everyone’s so much stronger and faster than what I’m used to playing. But I think overall, it’s a really good experience. Kind of eye-opening to come in and see the high level of hockey that’s played here. It’s been fun.”
Hughes plans to return to Spokane this upcoming season and continue to develop in the WHL. He said the key to eventually playing at NHL level will be to put on more muscle.
“Te biggest thing for me right now is just need to get bigger and stronger,” Hughes said. “Guys like the defensemen in front they battle so hard and it seems like they push me out of the way a little too easily. So I think if I can put on a little bit of weight and become stronger, that’ll help me out a lot.”