The quick rise of Bear Hughes
By Dan Thompson
Photo by Larry Burnt
There was no great epiphany that sparked it, no pressure to continue it and no particular reason why the Hughes family became enamored with hockey. Neither Michelle nor Vince, parents of 10 children, played it growing up.
They were athletes, sure, but living in Spokane and then Post Falls in the early 1990s, hockey wasn’t in their blood or much even in their neighborhood, with few hockey rinks to speak of in the area. But Vince took their oldest son, Rance, to a Spokane Chiefs game, and a love for the game was sparked.
“When I got to be old enough to skate, he took me to see if I would like it, and I loved it,” Rance said of his dad. “And I didn’t look back.”
The Hughes took to the game in its many forms, from on-ice to roller to playing in the basement with a tennis ball. And with 10 children in the family, there was rarely a shortage of people to play with.
“I tell you what, having an unfinished basement was a Godsend,” Michelle Hughes said. “It was one place I could send them all. They just put up nets and they would play there by the hours, and really there was nothing down there for them to break.”
Those routines were well-established, then, by the time Cassius Paul—baby number six—was born in the spring of 2001, when Rance was 10. So, Cassius, whose family has called him “Bear” for as long as they can remember, joined in as soon as he could. His memory of those early years is a little fuzzy. But one memory stands out: “The only thing I remember is the first goal I scored was in my own net,” Hughes said. “So that was pretty embarrassing.”
Yet of all the Hughes children—there are three girls and seven boys, with Roman, the youngest, now 11—Bear has so far proven to be the most talented at the family sport. Rance played a few seasons of junior hockey, including two for the Spokane Braves, but his career didn’t reach the heights of his younger brother.
“He was always relatively good at it as far as I can remember, but it’s hard to tell when you’re young. It wasn’t like we were saying he was gonna be a pro when he was 5 or anything,” Rance said. “Our careers were pretty similar, up until he got really good.”
No Idaho-born player had ever been selected in the National Hockey League Draft until last October, when the Washington Capitals used a fifth-round selection, 148th overall, on Bear Hughes. Only two Idahoans have played in the NHL, and that was more than 60 years ago.
Where many other top prospects had spent their peewee and bantam hockey years playing in leagues or at academies away from home, Bear played in the same North Idaho in-house league, up until he joined the Spokane Braves, who play in a Canadian Junior B league, in the fall of 2018.
His mark on that league was immediate. He scored 41 goals in 46 games and was named the Kootenay Junior League Rookie of the Year, and late that spring, in 2019, he played two games for the Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League, scoring two goals.
“Every kid dreams of playing in the NHL, but for me it didn’t really start feeling like it could actually happen until the beginning of last year,” Bear Hughes said. “I think it really hit me when I talked to my first scout.”
That was in early October 2019, when Hughes was off to a fast start with four points in his first three games as a rookie with the Chiefs. He and teammate Jack Finley—who was also drafted in 2020—were pulled aside postgame to talk to a visiting NHL scout. For the first time, Bear said, the NHL started to feel like a possibility. He finished the year seventh on the team with 47 points, including 16 goals.
The team’s season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, but Bear’s layoff from skating wasn’t as long as it was for others. That’s because his father Vince manages the Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d’Alene. Through the Kootenai Youth Recreation Organization, Vince was part of the arena’s initial construction in the early 2000s and then its reconstruction after the roof collapsed in December 2008.
As one of the few arenas in the region, Frontier has become an offseason training facility for the handful of NHL players who live in the area. That has given Bear—who has only attended one NHL game in his life—the chance to skate with former Chiefs greats like Tyler Johnson, Derek Ryan and Kailer Yamamoto since he was a kid.
And yet, the Hughes didn’t push their children to make a career—or even an obsession—of the sport.
“I never felt any more pressure to play from my parents, and I would be surprised if any of my other siblings did. It was something available to us, and most of us loved it,” Rance said. “It was something that was a big part of our family, but it never felt like, hey, if the tournament didn’t go well this weekend, it defined the whole weekend.”
Bear credits that mentality for helping him maintain his love of the game.
“My spirit for the game hasn’t really died at all,” he said. “(For some players), by the time they’re 18 or 19, they’re sick of it. For me, I’m always having fun.”
James Porter Jr., a goalie from Bonners Ferry who played 10 games for the Chiefs last season, understands the value of having ice to skate and practice on. During the offseason, he drove to Frontier twice a week just to get on the ice, with the Canadian border closed and no other arena any closer.
Porter said it’s significant that an Idahoan has now been drafted by an NHL team, and he hopes it leads more kids to play the game. As far as he knows, he’s the only person in Bonners Ferry who is currently playing in a junior hockey league.
“Right now, me and my younger sister are waiting for a lake to freeze so we can skate, just for fun,” Porter said. “Hopefully in the future we can get (an arena) up here.”
For the Hughes family, their basement stood in for a rink when there was no rink to be found. They’ve built a small rink down there now, with the same material for boards as one would find in a hockey arena. There are still seven children in the house, and they still play down there by the hours, Michelle Hughes said. That includes the son she calls both Cassius and Bear interchangeably.
“He just loves the game, he always did,” Michelle said. “I’m really proud of how hard he worked, and I’m happy for the chance that he’s been given. He’s been drafted. It seems pretty unbelievable.”