From unwanted to unstoppable
OXFORD, Ohio – Before coming to Miami, hockey opportunities were scarce for Grant Hutton.
No team in the USHL wanted him, and college offers were nearly non-existent.
“From his freshman year to now, potential NHL free agent signing, just his game, his defensive ability, his offensive ability has all come from his hard work and his willingness to do extra,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “He’s bought into how he needs to play at this level.”
Hutton is from Carmel, Ind., the Indianapolis suburb that produced former RedHawk Cameron Schilling – who has played 10 games in the NHL – as well as current Miami forward Scott Corbett.
Hutton’s father, G.R. Hutton, logged a season with USHL Omaha and G.R.’s father also coached hockey. So as soon as Grant learned how to walk, his family threw him on skates.
After two seasons with the Indiana Ice Under-16 team, Hutton hoped to make the Ice’s USHL team, which had drafted him. He was excited about the prospect of playing for the team he watched growing up less than a half hour from his home.
Hutton didn’t ultimately stick with the Ice, as he dressed just four games with Indiana that season and spent the majority of the campaign with NAHL Corpus Christi, which had tendered him.
“It was just one of those deals where obviously I wanted to be in the USHL but I was still young and wasn’t quite there yet,” Hutton said.
Prior to the following season, Hutton, now 18, attended the camps of two USHL teams – Des Moines and Tri-City.
Both cut him.
So that fall it was back to Corpus Christi. In parts of two seasons there, Hutton scored 10 goals and assisted on 19 others in 85 games.
At the trade deadline, Tri-City – one of the USHL teams that snubbed him the previous off-season – traded for him and called him up. In 20 games there he went 1-1-2.
He returned to Tri-City for his final juniors season in 2014-15 but that team again cut Hutton as it was in a rebuilding process.
Then Des Moines – the other USHL team that had released Hutton – traded for his rights and he logged 11 games there.
Des Moines again told Hutton that things weren’t working out, and it was back to the NAHL.
“They even tried to play me at forward for one game, but that was a terrible idea,” Hutton said. “I had no idea what I was doing up there.”
Hutton joined Janesville, but unlike some of his previous stops, this one would prove fulfilling.
With current teammate Zach LaValle leading the team in points, Hutton racked up four goals and 10 assists in 32 games, going a remarkable plus-26 in just half a season.
His plus-minus was largely the effect of Janesville’s 49-11 regular season record, as the Jets advanced to the conference final that spring.
So a season that started with Hutton yet again being rejected by the USHL ended up being one of his best on-ice developmental experiences.
“I was super upset, it totally sucked, but it was one of those things now – looking back at it – it was 100 percent the best thing that could’ve happened to me in my hockey career,” Hutton said. “Obviously I ended up at Miami, and I’m super grateful for that, but just in terms of going to a place where I was a role player, I was used in all situations. I wasn’t sitting in the stands. We were on an unbelievable team…I’ve never been on a team like that in my life. Everyone was good hockey players and good people, and we just meshed really well, and I think I developed – in terms of my junior career, for sure I took the biggest step in Janesville, just maturing as a player and as a person.”
In three seasons of juniors, Hutton played for five teams in two leagues and was cut five times, with two teams releasing him twice.
“For me, I think I learned a lot about myself, went through a lot of adversity, and it’s helped me immensely in my career because I’ve gone through a lot of these experiences that some guys may not have had to go through,” Hutton said. “When hard times come around I feel like I’m prepared for that kind of thing.”
His struggle to find a USHL suitor is baffling considering he has missed three games in three seasons since coming to Oxford.
“I think a little bit of everything plays into that, right?” Hutton said. “First and foremost, you have to find a place where you fit in. All these teams I kept going to, other than Tri-City when I first got called up, had good right-handed defensemen. I always felt like I could compete with all of them at that level, but I think it’s hard in terms of confidence when you go into a new place and you aren’t really given a shot, and if you are given a shot, you make one mistake and you end up back in the stands.”
With three years of juniors service, Hutton, now 20, had only three Division I teams interested in him. Air Force was one but Hutton hadn’t considered that route, and Bentley wanted his services but he would have to walk on there.
Option three was Miami.
Though the RedHawks courted Hutton, there was certainly no guarantee ice time would be available for him entering his freshman year. The 2015-16 RedHawks featured five senior defensemen plus sophomores Louie Belpedio and Scott Dornbrock.
Hutton was the lone freshman on D, and he fully expected to sit most of his Division I rookie season.
But when the defensive pairings were announced for Game 1 of 2015-16, Hutton’s name was on the lineup sheet, and he earned an assist in his inaugural NCAA game vs. Providence.
“When I was in the lineup opening night I was totally shocked – this is absolutely crazy,” Hutton said. “Obviously all the hard work paid off, and I always believed in myself, but I was mentally prepared to have to take a step back and develop my game and learn from those guys, even if it meant being in the stands, which I was OK with.”
Hutton played in 35 of 36 games his first season, and with all of the veterans already on the Miami blueline he was able to gain experience in lower-leverage situations in adapting to the college game.
“It was one of those things where I think I was in an awesome situation to come in and learn from those guys,” Hutton said. “I wasn’t thrown into a role where I had to do too much. I was lucky enough I came into a situation where my role was: Play defense. Don’t let other teams score. And I love doing that, so it was super easy for me.”
Hutton, who is third in Miami hockey history in defenseman goals, did not score once as a freshman, picking up five assists. He earned NCHC defenseman of the week honors once and blocked 38 shots.
With all of the departed senior blueliners, Hutton relished the opportunity to move into a more offensive-oriented role and log minutes on the power play his sophomore season.
He was happy with his progress the summer before his second year, and from Game 1 the puck started finding the net. Hutton scored his first career goal in Providence on opening night 2016-17.
Hutton finished that season with nine goals, tops among Miami defensemen, and he tied Belpedio for first in points by a blueliner with 17.
“He wouldn’t shoot the puck his freshman year – I think he was afraid to get it off for some reason,” Blasi said. “Once he started shooting the puck, it started going in – obviously he’s got a hard shot – I think his confidence from playing and feeling good about what he does on a day-to-day basis has helped his overall game probably.”
Junior season, Hutton racked up five goals the first four games of the season. He ended up leading all college hockey defensemen with 13 goals, and he added 14 assists.
It was the fourth-most goals ever by a Miami blueliner.
“It’s no coincidence that he shoots extra pucks every day and then they end up in the back of the net, but he puts in the work to get what he deserves,” junior forward Gordie Green said.
Green joined the team after Hutton’s freshman season, so he doesn’t know life at Oxford without Hutton being a major scoring threat.
“I kind of joke with him: The Grant that I know wasn’t the Grant Hutton his freshman year,” Green said.
Immediately following 2017-18, both RedHawks assistants and six non-seniors left, and the pro game was beckoning the undrafted star.
Hutton said he pondered the decision during a family trip, and he and Josh Melnick – also a highly-skilled senior-to-be with pro aspirations – publicly announced via social media that they would return for their senior season.
“I love it here so much, ultimately that was what brought me back,” Hutton said. “Obviously I knew Mel was probably coming back and everybody knows how close we are. We were going to be in or out together. Once we mutually decided we were coming back it was a done deal, there was no more speculation. I know I called Rico right away once I made my decision and said hey, I’m coming back, just wanted to let you know first. I just didn’t want to have any regrets leaving this place – it’s amazing.”
Both Hutton and Melnick were assistant captains last season and they were named co-captains prior to 2018-19.
“He’s someone that everyone respects, and each follows his lead, no matter what that is,” Melnick said. “The best thing is he knows what to say at the right time, and that’s been the biggest thing for us this year. Whenever something may not be going the right way, he knows what to say and guys listen and respect that. On top of that he works extremely hard both on and off the ice, so he sets a good example as well.”
As captain, Hutton has seven goals and 13 assists this season, leading the team in blueliner goals. His 20 points rank fourth on the team.
“It’s been an awesome learning experience,” Hutton said. “For me, I just wanted to be able to bridge the gap between the coaches and the players – I think that’s the primary role of a captain. I think the biggest thing for the captain is you have to portray both sides, so whatever the players are thinking, you’ve got to be able to voice that to the coaches and if the coaches are thinking things, whatever they’re preaching you’ve got to be able to preach it to the players as well.”
For his career, Hutton has 29 goals, the third-most ever in Miami history among blueliners behind only Kevin Beaton and Dan Boyle.
He also has 41 assists for 70 points, the fourth-highest defenseman total in the Cady Arena era. Matthew Caito, Chris Wideman and Belpedio are the only others to record more in their RedHawks careers since the rink opened.
“He has grown so much as a player since we’ve gotten here,” Melnick said.
Both Green and Melnick talked about the advantage of having Hutton on the ice during their shifts.
“From a forward perspective, if you’re working hard in the corner you know you can get the puck up to him at the point and you’d better go to the net because you know it’s coming,” Melnick said.
Said Green: “He’s really smart when he picks and chooses when to step in the rush,” Green said. “It’s definitely just a comfortability thing, knowing that you’re on the ice with him, and especially on the power play, he’s our go-to guy. Anyone who has that hard of a shot and that accurate of a shot is a threat at all times.”
Hutton said he was recently talking to his father, G.R., about the magnitude of his four-year transformation from unwanted to Miami captain.
“Can you actually believe what’s going on?” Hutton said. “We were talking about preparing not to play freshman year, and it’s kind of taken off.”
Said Blasi: “He’s a very mature young man so he’s kind of taken that in stride. He knows he’s got a lot of work to do and every day is a challenge, but you just take it from there and whatever happens, happens and you control the things you can control and you go from there. The maturity and the growth is something that we as a program and a coaching staff really emphasize in terms of growing our players, whether we’re winning championships or not. That’s the most important thing that we do is to develop our players to become better at what they do, and a lot of the credit goes to the player and the individual and we just try to hold them accountable to the standard that they set.”
And when the RedHawks’ season ends, NHL teams will be drooling to sign a player of Hutton’s caliber, with a stature and skill set custom made for the pro game.
But if it wasn’t for Miami, that evolution may have never occurred, and Hutton has treasured his years in Oxford.
“It’s been the best four years of my life, by far,” Hutton said. “I tell people all the time, if I had 60 offers, there’s no way I’d go anywhere (else), knowing now what I know about Miami. It’s the best place in the world. We have amazing fans, we have an amazing support system, incredible facilities, the education is top-notch and the people that I’ve been able to meet here are going to be with me the rest of my life. It’s just such a surreal place. It’s almost hard to put into words, you almost can’t say enough good things about Miami University as a whole and the Miami hockey program. It’s such a special place – it means so much to me. I tell people all the time: You’ve got to come over here and check out Miami. I can’t imagine being anywhere else but here.”