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With Atlantic Hockey still basking in the glory of Holy Cross’ first-round NCAA upset of Minnesota, the league and its member schools can feel the glow of even more sunshine.

Mercyhurst would-be senior defenseman Jamie Hunt became the league’s first-ever early departure for the National Hockey League, signing a contract with the Washington Capitals, USCHO.com has learned. Hunt, who led the nation in points per game for defensemen this season, could make his NHL debut before the year is out.

“It’s pretty surreal right now,” said Hunt. “It hasn’t sunk it yet, but it will tomorrow morning when I go for my first skate with the team.”

Though Hunt’s departure leaves a significant hole on the Lakers’ blue line, Erie is glistening more with pride than concern.

“To make the jump from college hockey right to the NHL is symbolic,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “Part of me wishes he was anchoring our power play next year, but this was too good of an opportunity for Jamie to pass up.”

Hunt’s departure ends a scouting process that began in December when Capitals director of player development Steve Richmond was one of a handful to recognize the blueliner’s talent. Since that time, Richmond and others kept a watchful eye on Hunt, culminating with his contract signing on Monday.

“Dealing with the Washington staff was great,” said Gotkin. “They’ve been nothing but professional. They’ve kept me in the loop the whole way.

“I don’t know the exact language of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but if you sign an underclassman before July 1, you have to make immediate roster space for him. There were a few teams all bidding for [Hunt] but Washington was the only team able to make room for him.”

Finding Hunt was actually a bit lucky for the Caps, admitted Richmond, who first saw him play when he was scouting another player and was immediately impressed by the skill of the 21-year old blueliner.

“I looked over during warmups and saw him skating and wondered who the heck this guy was,” said Richmond of the defenseman who he said has a knack for jumping into the offense at the right time. “Then I looked down at the notes and saw he was the leading scoring defenseman.”

The recent success for Atlantic Hockey was not lost on any involved in this deal. Gotkin calls Hunt’s signing, combined with Holy Cross’ recent success in the national tournament an “all-time high” for the league. Richmond looks at it as an opportunity for this somewhat fledgling league to begin to flourish.

“Obviously the kids [in Atlantic Hockey] can play,” said Richmond. “With the success of the league, there’s some talent there no matter how old [the players] are. So our organization is taking closer look at Atlantic Hockey.”

Gotkin said that Hunt will still work to finish his education that still has one year remaining. Hunt has a 3.8 grade point average in finance at Mercyhurst.

“There’s mixed feelings, obviously [leaving Mercyhurst],” said Hunt. “I’ll miss my teammates, but this is an incredible opportunity for me.”

It’s against Washington’s policy to comment on the financials of player signings, but Gotkin said that he believes Hunt’s contract, a two-year deal, is at or near the league maximum for a rookie free agent signing.

Hunt, a Calgary native, has joined the Capital team in Washington and begun practicing with the squad. Richmond said that at this time it’s unclear whether or not he will crack the Washington lineup before season’s end.

“One day you’re finishing the season against Bentley,” said Gotkin. “The next you’re skating next to [top NHL rookie] Alexander Ovechkin. Not bad.”