When Carter Ashton emerged from the Lethbridge Hurricanes dressing room prior to the club’s Nov. 1 tilt in Kelowna against the Rockets, the resemblance to his father was clearly evident to a couple of old scribes in attendance.
It was indeed many moons ago that Brent Ashton skated in the WHL for the Saskatoon Blades, where his offensive prowess and complete play during a four-year junior career resulted in a call from the Vancouver Canucks during the second round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. Carter’s father would proceed to play 998 regular season games in the NHL games for a total of nine teams.
“Yeah, I traveled a lot when I was younger because my dad played pro hockey,” Carter said. “I was born in Winnipeg and moved around to other places like Boston and Las Vegas.”
Born in Winnipeg while his father toiled with the Jets, Carter saw much of North America as a youngster. But when the NHL–related travel ceased, the family returned to Saskatoon.
“I played a lot of minor hockey in Saskatoon in the bantam Flyers zone and then in midget, I played for the Saskatoon Contacts,” Carter said. “I went to Lethbridge when I was 16.”
During his minor hockey days, Brent was nearby as Carter grew up and developed his skills.
“I’m very proud of Carter,” Brent said. “You know, he’s just a real good kid. He’s doing something now that he really wants to do. He doesn’t have to be told to do things. These kids know it’s up to them now. Carter enjoys it and he understands.
“It’s nice to see him improving every year. The injury last season set him back, but he really bounced back and had a good playoff run. He’s getting more ice time this season and seems more confident.”
And Carter knows he has benefited from his father’s knowledge and experience.
“He has had a huge impact,” Carter said. “He coached me through all my minor hockey until bantam. I’m pretty lucky to be able to take advantage of being close to someone who knows so much about hockey. He’s always been there.”
Drafted in the first round, seventh overall, in the 2006 WHL Bantam Draft, Carter is another in a long line of current players with ties to the Contacts midget program. He played with Jimmy Bubnick (Kamloops), Brayden Schenn (Brandon) and Jared Cowen (Spokane), all of which are expected to have their names called next June at the NHL Entry Draft.
“It’s pretty cool to have played with those guys and to have become good friends,” Carter said. “Now we’re all traveling around and we still see each other throughout the league. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but there sure were some special players there in Saskatoon.”
For Ashton, the transition from midget hockey to the WHL included a major, unforeseen, roadblock. He was prepared to adjust to the speed of the game, but a serious injury early in the season kept him away from game action for almost three months. In total, he played 40 regular season games and chipped in with five goals and four assists.
“It was definitely different in Lethbridge because of the size and speed of the players,” Ashton said. “But right at the start of last year, I broke my collarbone and was out for about 12 weeks. After that it was tough to get back into the games.”
The injury was certainly a setback, but Ashton was selected to participate in the 2008 World U17 Championship in London, Ontario for Team West. The group, which included Cowen, Schenn and Bubnick, managed a bronze medal. For Carter, the experience enabled him to play during the holiday season, rather than wait for WHL play to resume.
“I was able to be part of the U17 tournament over the Christmas season and that really helped,” Ashton said. “And after the second half of the season in Lethbridge, we ended up with a great playoff run and that was a good experience.”
Indeed, the Hurricanes playoff run was exciting for the team and for certain, the entire community. The ‘Canes eliminated the highly-touted Calgary Hitmen along the way before bowing out to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs in the WHL final.
“I played a lot with Cam Braes,” Ashton said. “We were part of kind of a checking line, an energy line and that was a lot of fun playing in that role during the playoffs.”
During the past off-season, Ashton was also part of Team Canada, the gold-medal winning group at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 Tournament in Czechoslakia. He collected a goal and five assists in six games, numbers he has already surpassed this season in only 17 games.
“That was a huge accomplishment for me,” Ashton said. “I kind of new I had a chance to be invited to the camps and then getting picked for the squad was huge. We had a great time during the summer and we came together really quickly. Overall, I had the time of my life last year.”
Due to his development and successes last year, the expectations have changed this season for Ashton, who checks in at 6’3 and 200 pounds. His role in Lethbridge is changing and the coaching staff has become more demanding. For the most part so far, he’s playing alongside Dwight King and Carter Bancks.
“They have me playing a bigger role this season among the top-six forwards,” Ashton said. “I’ll play on special teams and I know it’s really important that I be productive there and keep the confidence of the coaches. I see myself as a power forward, I like to use my size to get wide and down low, but I have to use these things to produce points.”
Like many of the players with ties to the Saskatoon Contacts organization, the travel in the WHL is another area that requires some adjustment. In the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League, the longest road trip might be about three hours.
“The travel is definitely different here,” Ashton said. “I mean we didn’t even have overnights in midget hockey, so I knew that would be different in the WHL. But being on the road, it’s a great place for guys to really try and come together as a team.”
We’ll leave the last word to dad, his thoughts on the game and the business that Carter has fully immersed himself in.
“The business and the game have certainly changed over the years,” Brent said. “I think the kids are more talented than we were at their age. You really see that in their dedication.
“You know, there’s a saying. Every day you miss practice, that’s one more day of practice that somebody else has over you.”