Not only did he return home for the holidays, Derek Hulak came back to play hockey for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
The former Saskatoon Blades captain -- twice a 30-goal scorer in the Western Hockey League -- joined the Hockey Dogs on Wednesday afternoon for his first practice at Rutherford Rink.
Hulak, 21, had been playing for the Tulsa Oilers in the Central Hockey League. He has enrolled at the U of- and eligible to play in the upcoming second term, which starts next week.
"I knew that if I decided to stay pro, I'd be tearing down quite a bit as far as the scholarships were concerned," said Hulak, who needed to make a decision prior to Jan. 1 without having his Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility penalized.
"Some people think that, if you go to the CIS, it's the end of your hockey career. I definitely disagree with that. The proof is there with people who go on to play pro after, people that go to Europe after. You can use the Huskies as a stepping stone to get to other places."
Hulak -- who has had National Hockey League tryouts with both the Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes -- collected four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 21 games with the CHL's Tulsa Oilers.
He initially signed with the ECHL's Reading Royals but failed to catch on.
"I definitely didn't want to turn down an NHL tryout with the Phoenix Coyotes," said Hulak, explaining why he didn't join the Huskies back in September. "I wasn't 100 per cent sure of what I wanted to do at the time. I kind of knew, in the back of my mind that, going into the NHL camp, if I wasn't a guy who wasn't going to play in the AHL, if I was going to be down in the East Coast or CHL, it's kind of a long way up from there.
"I almost had my mind made up before I left, but I wasn't 100 per cent -- if I wasn't on an AHL squad or signed an NHL contract -- that school would be the route for me."
Still, he gave minor pro a chance -- on a free CIS pass given to players in their first year out of junior hockey prior to the start of the second term -- without jeopardizing eligibility.
"I definitely wanted to go down there and try it," Hulak said Wednesday. "I'm glad that I did. I had a lot of fun. I met a lot of good people. They treated me very well. I got to experience it, so, at least now, I'm not kind of wondering 'what if?' I definitely had a good experience. At the same time now, I'm real excited to get going with the Huskies."
Hulak, a 6-foot, 190-pound forward from Saskatoon, had 31 goals and 53 assists for 84 points in 72 games with the Blades last season before adding nine points in 10 playoff games.
He was just starting to figure things out with Tulsa when the clock began clicking on his CIS decision.
"I kind of left right at the time when the coach started showing some confidence in me," admitted Hulak. "It was a little tougher to leave at that point once the success had started settling in, but, at the same time, I definitely think I made the right decision."
Hulak is following the path of his older brother, Dan, a former all-star defenceman for the Huskies.
"I witnessed my brother Dan go through it and he has nothing but good things to say about the Huskies and the organization and how much fun he had here."
The addition Hulak gives the Huskies 10 forwards who reached the 20-goal plateau during a season in the WHL.
Hulak isn't sure where exactly he fits in.
"That's up to them. I'm hoping to be a guy that comes in and contributes right away, but, if that's not in the mix, so be it -- they're a good squad that's been together for a few months already," he said.
"I definitely don't put myself ahead of anybody on that team. I'm just going to wait and see what the coaching staff sees in me."
U of- head coach Dave Adolph sees unlimited potential.
"Derek is a former captain of a WHL team from a program (Blades) that puts great emphasis on leadership and accountability," Adolph said Wednesday. "He had 84 points last season and was starting to find his way this year in minor pro at a point-a-game clip. He is a proven player who now genuinely wants to go to school. What is not to like about those assets? Throw in that he is from the Hulak family and we have another quality young man in our Huskie program."