Charlottetown, P.E.I. — Brett Budgell did some island hopping Tuesday and found a new hockey home for a new year.
The 16-year-old from Paradise woke up at 4 a.m., headed to St. John’s International Airport, caught a flight to Charlottetown, P.E.I., and on arrival, immediately made his way to the Eastlink Centre, where he hit the ice with his new club, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Charlottetown Islanders.
Budgell, who had been the Islanders’ top pick in the most recent QMJHL draft had attended training camp with the team, but left without signing in order to retain his NCAA eligibility. He joined the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League for the first half of the season, but the Islanders kept in contact with the Budgell family and an agreement was eventually reached that led to the young forward’s Tuesday trip.
“It’s a sense of relief more than anything,” head coach and general manager Jim Hulton said following Budgell’s first practice with the Islanders. "And then, when you watch him play, you get excited because now you remember why you drafted him that high — he's a really good player."
Hulton said the deal with Budgell, whom the Islanders drafted in the second round, 25th overall, was finalized during the 48 hours around New Years Day, but had been in the works for much longer.
"We put a lot of time and effort into it, right from ownership right on down," said Hulton, who declined at least one overture from another QMJHL interested in trading for Budgell’s rights.
Hulton added many ownership groups wouldn't have shown the same support his did after a top pick did not immediately report to the club.
“This wouldn't have happened without the flexibility, encouragement and support from our ownership,” he said.
For his part, Budgell said there were initially some concerns about going the major junior route, including how it might affect his education plans, but he is happy to find himself in Charlottetown.
"We worked all that stuff out and, I guess, here, I am,” he said. “I'm an Islander now.”
The Islanders, who lost a lot of players to graduation in the off-season, have surprised many with play during the first half of 2017-18; they’re in third place in the Maritimes Division. Budgell admits the team’s performance played a factor in his decision, but insisted it was only part of the equation.
“Jim is obviously a great coach and he's a real big reason I came here," said Budgell. “He definitely made my decision easier to come here.”
Budgell spent the 2016-17 season playing with a midget team in London Ont., scoring 25 goals and 58 points in 32 games. This season, he had two goals and two assists in 17 USHL games with Chicago and also suited up with one of the Canadian entries at the World U17 Challenge.
Hulton expects Budgell to become reliable player in all three zones.
"His offensive game will grow as his career goes,” said the Islanders’ coach.
Budgell agreed, saying he can make plays and score goals, but describing himself as a player who works hard at both ends of the ice.
"I think I have a high compete level and I definitely want to win," he said.
Budgell’s arrival does not increase the Islanders’ Newfoundland and Labrador quota. Right-winger Matthew Grouchy, an 18-year-old from Labrador City, had been one of Charlottetown’s top scorers, with 11 goals and 13 assists in 33 games, but on Tuesday, the Islanders announced he had been traded to the Quebec Remparts.