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'We need more guys like him': UNC club hockey goalie serves as example for rest of team

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UNC senior goalkeeper Joel Hughes (27) approached the locker room in the Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 game against East Carolina University. UNC beat ECU with a score of 9-1.

When goalkeeper Joel Hughes entered the Tar Heel club ice hockey locker room for the first time, he told his teammates that he had seen combat before most of them were born. 

That’s because Hughes, although a senior at UNC, is a 39-year-old veteran. As his teammates were learning to walk, Hughes was amidst his illustrious two-decade-long military career. Last year, he became UNC’s primary goalkeeper and helped lead the Tar Heels to their first-ever Governor’s Cup.

His journey to this point is unusual, and Hughes would admit that.

“I’m a 39-year-old guy,” Hughes said. “It shouldn’t be hard for young dudes to score on me, right?”

Guess again. This season, Hughes boasts an 89 percent save percentage. 

And while his younger teammates may have been skeptical when they first saw Hughes’ 6-foot-4 frame lumber onto the ice, he quickly proved their doubts to be unfounded.

"He's the guy," Jeff Volkman, former UNC head coach, said. "The guy has a never-quit attitude."


UNC senior goaltender Joel Hughes (27) makes a save at UNC club hockey's season opener at Orange County Sportsplex on Sept. 23, 2023.


Life before hockey

Even though he grew up in New England, Hughes didn't find the ice until the age of 11 or 12, and even then, split his time between hockey and baseball. After being a catcher for most of his childhood, he gravitated to goalkeeping, especially the fancy helmet and large pads that came with it. 

Slowly, baseball became boring and hockey became everything.

As he approached high school graduation, Hughes had a choice to make — either continue working at his hometown gas station and be in the same town forever, or go do something.

Inspired by childhood days spent dressing up in camouflage and watching "Top Gun" too many times, Hughes entered basic military training just four days after his 2002 high school graduation. 

Almost immediately, he made an impression in this new environment and on soon-to-be friends like Adam Bacon, who served alongside Hughes in the military. 

"His attitude just kept everybody fine," Bacon said. "We were all content with what we were doing even though it sucked." 

Bacon said Hughes always acted as a natural leader who sought no recognition — his only priority was to support his platoon. 

Following stints as a sniper and sergeant, Hughes became a Green Beret in 2010 and continued in this position until 2023. In 2015, he settled at Fort Liberty, formerly Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville. Conveniently, there was an ice rink on base.

Returning to the rink

While at Buffalo Wild Wings in 2015, Hughes' son, Jackson, drew his attention to a nearby TV broadcasting a hockey game.

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“Can I play?”

Just like that, after 13 years away from the ice, Hughes returned to the rink for Jackson.

While Jackson’s interest in hockey quickly fizzled, Hughes' world once again began to revolve around hockey, and he soon joined a beer hockey league.

At the height of COVID-19, Hughes decided to go back to school, taking online classes at Fayetteville Technical Community College before applying to UNC to major in exercise and sports science. 

During hockey practice, Hughes mentioned his application to his friends. Many of them were past members of the North Carolina club hockey team and suggested he join. Nervously, Hughes took his suggestion and contacted the then-head of the team, Volkman.

“I had a phone call for about 45 minutes,” Hughes said. "And he was like, at the end of the conversation saying, ‘You know, we'd like to get coffee sometime and talk some more in person.’ And I was like, ‘How about you invite me out to a practice? And I'll show you I'm not full of it, like, I can perform.’”

Volkman said his doubts concerning Hughes vanished in 10 minutes for two reasons. 

For one, nobody could get a puck past him. 

While Volkman saw his size potential immediately, he was later impressed by Hughes’ skill and drive. Combine these elements and they will pose problems, even for a team half Hughes’ age. 

And as for the other reason, as soon as he got off the ice, the other players had one question.

“Can he play for us?”

The spot was his. 

“He could be the guy”

When he started at UNC, Hughes traveled 50-plus miles twice a week for practice on top of a full-class schedule.

At the time, he was a backup, but that would change when the Tar Heels met their rival, N.C. State, last September. 

UNC quickly found itself down to the Wolfpack, 2-0, with a sick goalkeeper. In the middle of the game, Volkman told Hughes he was going in. 

With no chance to warm up, he headed into the fire. 

With Hughes in goal, N.C. State only scored once, while the Tar Heels were able to score four goals in the last period. 

"He shut down one of the top teams in the nation at that time," Volkman said. "He proved to me that any doubts that I had, he could be the guy we could roll with for the rest of the season." 

For a program that rarely won against the Ice Pack in recent years, Hughes completely flipped the script. Out of the six times they met last season, North Carolina won four. In the most crucial matchup, when the rivals faced off last November, Hughes helped the Tar Heels win their first Governor’s Cup. 

As the team’s primary goalkeeper, Hughes was instrumental in the team making an ACHA championship run before losing to Kentucky, one game away from their first championship appearance. 

Inspired by how close they came last season, the team wants to win a championship more than ever. As Hughes takes the ice, sporting a custom "Top Gun"-themed helmet studded with 24-karat gold flakes, success feels more possible than ever.


UNC senior goalie Joel Hughes (27) defends the goal in the Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 game against East Carolina University. UNC beat ECU with a score of 9-1.


Although Hughes’ goal is to have that championship run, this experience is not solely about the accolades. It is a chance to "unwind" with a group that reminds him of the close relationships he formed in the army. 

“I think playing hockey when I came here to [North Carolina] be an instructor gave me that camaraderie again with people that I wanted, like I had on my special forces teams,” Hughes said. 

His teammates say he is a leader in the locker room. For senior forward Leighton Walsh, he has quickly become a lifelong friend. 

"I think of him honestly more so like a father figure on this team," Walsh said. "He shows everyone that there’s a lot to be done with determination and hard work and he’s definitely put that in. I think he’s a really exceptional man when it comes to just showing everyone what a leader is." 

Hughes has found fellowship while playing the sport he loves and the Tar Heels have found a mentor in a wiser, more experienced teammate. Spanning from stories, relationship advice and questions about life, Hughes is looked to in every scenario. 

This isn’t new. Bacon says he saw Hughes' impact on teams he was a part of when they met early in their careers and the UNC hockey team is benefiting from it now.

"We need more guys like him," Bacon said. "If we had an army full of Joels, we’d take over the universe."

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com