BONNYVILLE – Next season, the Bonnyville Pontiacs will say farewell to two of their powerhouse players – Will Hilfiker and A.J. Macaulay – as the pair heads farther north to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Pontiacs’ defenceman Will Hilfiker made the decision in early November to commit to the Alaskan university to play on the Nanooks hockey team. Hilfiker will be the third Pontiac to be scouted by the American school in less than two years.
Playing 4,000 km away from his home in Middletown, New Jersey, Hilfiker joined the Bonnyville Pontiacs at the beginning of the 2020/21 season after he was spotted while playing for the New Hampton Prep School by Chad Nelson, the Pontiacs’ head director of scouting and recruitment.
Being recruited out of the northeast, Hilfiker says “Chad Nelson and Neil Langridge have definitely made me feel welcome and this is definitely a spot that I want to be in. At the end of the day, you want to be where you wanted.”
Playing for the Pontiacs for only a season and a half, cut short by the pandemic, he has already formed tight bonds with the Bonnyville community.
“Obviously, this experience is much more than hockey. It's about being part of the community and getting comfortable in your surrounding and giving back. I was recruited to play hockey, but it's more than hockey. You want to give as much to your community as you can while you're there,” said Hilfiker.
That’s why Hilfiker chose to return to the RJ Lalonde Arena after spending the remainder of the 2020/21 season playing for the New Jersey Rockets, while the AJHL was put on hold due to the pandemic.
“After a short stint with the Rockets, due to COVID, I returned to the Pontiacs,” he explains. “I’ve felt at home here in Bonnyville since the moment I arrived. The coaches welcomed the newcomers, including myself, with open arms. I think that’s why you see players spending multiple years in Bonnyville. The professionalism and culture within the organization is unbelievable and that’s why I’m back for my final year.”
When Hilfiker started down the path to pursuing a career in professional hockey, the New Jersey native never expected he would have to travel so far from home. But in less than a year, Hilfiker will start his university and NCAA career nearly double the distance from home.
“Bonnyville is actually just about the halfway point from my place in New Jersey all the way to Alaska,” Hilfiker laughs, considering the idea of moving even further away.
“I thought I'd probably be travelling back home for university, but hockey takes you in all different directions and gives you amazing life experiences that you wouldn't be able to experience... So, I’m definitely looking forward to travelling wherever I need to go”
Having a teammate to head off to post-secondary with is one benefit of the double Pontiac commitment, but Hilfiker hopes it will also be an advantage on the ice.
“Building chemistry isn't easy, but for me to have that little extra advantage and have played with A.J. and Matt for a year or two definitely makes things a little easier going in,” he says.
Next year, Hilfiker and Macaulay will join former Pontiacs’ player McKim on the Nanooks roster. McKim, originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, had been asked to play with the team in January of 2020.
Hearing great things about Fairbank’s school and hockey program from McKim, Hilfiker adds, “I’m just looking forward to getting there with A.J. and meeting the rest of the guys as well.”
As a friend and a future Nanooks teammate of Macaulay, whose family is based in Bonnyville, Hilfiker added that he won’t cross out the possibility of returning to his old skating grounds for a visit.
“This is an amazing community and they've been nothing but great to me. I would definitely like to come back at some point.”
Although Hilfiker hasn’t officially chosen which undergraduate program he will enroll in next year, he is leaning towards Engineering.
Moving players on
Rick Swan, the Pontiacs’ head coach and general manager describes Hilfiker’s “well-deserved” commitment to the Division I NCAA team as “tremendous.”
"I am extremely excited and happy for Will’s opportunity with the University of Alaska Fairbanks," says Swan. "His ceiling as a player is so high and I see him lead by example with the work that he puts in every day to be the very best player, leader and person he can be.”
Since 2013, the Pontiacs have had 99 players commit to a NCAA level team. Hilfiker is the 98th player to accept a commitment.
Swan adds for that amount of people and NCAA schools that are gravitating towards the Town of Bonnyville, “this shows that we're doing the right things here. We are bringing in the right people and we're developing the right people, because they obviously like our kids and they want them part of their culture.”
He adds, “One team can win every year in Canada. If your philosophy for your organization and the success of your organization is based upon winning, then you've got the wrong coaching focus. So, what we have done here Bonnyville – the success of our program to see our players move on to that next level.”
“That's what we're proud of because these guys are going to finish their four-year university careers and they're going to be teachers and firemen, doctors and lawyers or whatever. They'll be successful contributing citizens in their own community.”