Two years ago, Kyle Hayter took a big step forward in his hockey progression, signing to play for the Helena Bighorns.
Now, he’s preparing to take the next step -- and in doing so, will make a bit of Capital City history.
The former Capital High multi-sport standout and Bighorns team captain is headed to Massachusetts this fall, where he will play for NCAA Division III Worcester State University.
Hayter wasn't born in Montana, but moved to Helena when he was 7 years old. He’d learned to skate already, but it was in Helena that he mastered those skills with the local Learn to Skate program. He then moved on to competitive hockey, eventually playing for the high school team, helping that squad to a state championship. Then came the Bighorns, and now the Lancers.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only kid to go through the Helena program all the way through and then into the NCAA,” he said Thursday, days before heading to Worcester to visit the campus and meet the team and coaches. “I really want that to be a motivator for kids here. I just hope it opens doors for kids in the future.”
There are others with Montana ties playing collegiate hockey. Most notable among them is Clay Van Diest, the son of Carroll College football coach Mike Van Diest. Clay, like many in non-hockey-rich areas, left home when he was a teen.
He played for several years at a boarding school, and eventually landed at St. Norbert College. He and the Green Knights reached the D-III title game a year ago, and fell in the Frozen Four semifinals this past season.
Hayter, too, thought about leaving home to pursue his hockey dream. But ultimately he elected to take the harder route -- and prove that even in Helena, Montana, it could be done.
“It’s cool to have a unique path for myself,” he said. “And I hope I can be a role model any way I can.”
There were more than a half-dozen offers made to Hayter. But while playing at the NA3HL Top Prospects Tournament, he met with Worcester assistant coach John Coughlin Jr. Hayter was so impressed, he was on the computer that night looking up the school, and was quickly sold.
“Honestly, even if hockey wasn’t an option, I’d probably go to Worcester State just because of the educational opportunity. It’ll be great being in that Boston area, too.
“After I got off the phone committing, I was pretty pumped. I was whooping and hollering ... it was a pretty special day for me. And my family, because they put a lot into it to help me get to this point.”
Hayter is working to ensure he’s as ready as he can be when he gets to school in the fall.
He’s in the gym once or twice a day, six times a week, working on weight training and mobility. The ice at the Helena Ice Arena is down until this weekend, so he’s also been able to work on his skating daily. But with it leaving, he’ll have to do the best he can to overcome not having access to ice for a while.
It isn’t a new challenge -- he had to do the same ahead of his two years with the Bighorns, too. So now he’s at least a little familiar with what lies ahead.
When Clay Van Diest returns for the summer -- a friend who, Hayter said, was a “huge motivator” throughout his hockey career -- the two work out together and go through what conditioning they can at Vigilante Stadium at Carroll.
Still, it isn’t quite the same.
“That’s one of the things about being a Montana hockey player. There’s ice here for probably seven, eight months a year,” Hayter said. “You can run as much as you want. I’ve come into training camp last two years in great shape, but the muscles you use for running are so different than what you use for hockey. It’s easy to keep your stick skills, just working in the driveway or whatever, but that first week on the ice no matter what you do on the ice is gonna hurt pretty bad.”
Returning to school after a two-year hiatus could also potentially hurt a bit, but Hayter has done his prep work there, too.
Throughout his time with the Bighorns, he’s been taking some classes part-time at Helena College. It will still be a change, going to full-time student-athlete. But he hopes the handful of classes will help him adjust a little quicker.
It also helps that he’s a bit of a self-admitted nerd.
“It’ll definitely be a whole new world out there, both school-wise and sports-wise. But I’m excited,” said Hayter, who plans to study biotechnology and, later, pharmacology. “What I’ve done here the last two years, and the coaching I’ve gotten, it has prepared me really well.
“I am a guy who likes school a lot. That’s a little nerdy to stay, but I enjoy it. And I like being a student-athlete, too. I think I’m a lot more prepared than other Junior players would be.”