Friday night may very well be a dream come true for Brenden Dillon, but it has been a long time in the making.
“I definitely have the 15th circled on my calendar,” he admitted. “It should be pretty fun.”
Dillon, a 22-year-old from Surrey, was referring to the Dallas Stars’ upcoming visit to Rogers Arena on Feb. 15.
“You grow up watching the Canucks and going to a couple of games, and seeing how special that was, see all the guys out on the ice,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 31.
“So it will definitely be a dream come true being out there.”
The day before speaking with The Times, Dillon had registered his first NHL fight, when he scrapped with Detroit’s Jordin Tootoo.
And while that may have been a milestone in Dillon’s brief NHL career, he one-upped it the very next game against Phoenix when he registered an assist, scored his first career goal, and then completed the Gordie Howe hat trick with a scrap.
And fighting might be an apt description for Dillon’s journey to the NHL.
“Looking back, I have always had that chip on my shoulder,” he said.
“Wanting to prove people wrong and just show that I can be a player one day.”
Dillon tale is of the classic late-bloomer.
A defenceman in the Surrey Minor Hockey Association, Dillon was bypassed in the Western Hockey League’s bantam draft.
“They did a really good job that summer of making me into a stronger player and a better hockey player,” Dillon said.
He attended a tryout camp for the junior B Hope Icebreakers of the PIJHL and landed a roster spot.
At five-foot-two — not exactly what scouts are drooling over — Dillon went through a growth spurt and now, seven years later, he is six-foot-three and 228 pounds.
“Tim has meant so much to me from right when I met him to even now, every summer, I will continue to go back,” Dillon said.
“It is such a good program.”
Following one season in Hope, Dillon landed a spot with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, coincidentally, the same organization Preston played for from 1997 to 2002. Preston was a third-round NHL draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 who played half a season in the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League).
Dillon became a mainstay on the Thunderbirds blue-line and was listed by NHL Central Scouting as the 91st ranked North American skater for the 2009 draft. Once again, he was not chosen.
Undeterred, Dillon kept plugging away and in his final junior campaign in 2010/11, he racked up eight goals and 51 assists in 72 games. He was also the team captain.
Dillon said his time in the WHL was vital in helping him prepare for life as a pro hockey player.
“You see how grueling the schedule is, the travel is, so many games in a low amount of time,” he said.
“But I always had it in the back of my mind that maybe I could play pro one day.”
Dillon said a dozen or so teams were interested in him, but he met with Dallas first, and they offered him a free agent contract. He joined the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate Texas Stars for the 2011 playoffs and then spent the full season last year with Texas.
He did get called up for one game last April and made his NHL debut against St. Louis in the regular season finale.
“It is pretty tough to put into words,” he recalled about what he felt that night.
“You think about from when I first put on my skates to play in the NHL, the best league in the world and the best players in the world, it was a dream come true and probably something I will never forget.”
He played nearly 20 minutes that night, registering a game-high six shots, four hits and three blocked shots.
But for this lockout-shortened season, Dillon has been with the big club from day one and making an impact.
He is paired with Stephane Robidas, a 35-year-old in his 12th NHL season and with more than 800 games on his resume. Dillon has also been living with Robidas.
“He has got all the tools you can ask for in a defenceman,” Robidas said on the Stars website.
“He’s got the size, he’s got the speed, he can move the puck, he can shoot it, he can be physical and he can fight.
“You can pretty much throw him in any situation. He’s got the whole package.”
Through the season’s first 11 games, Dillon has two points and is a plus-one in 18:26 of ice time per game. His ice time is third on the team.
Dillon said he never had a problem staying positive.
“I have a good group of people around me, from my trainers, to my parents and coaches, who really mentored me to have the ‘don’t quit’ attitude,” he said.
“That is something that has stuck with me: hard work will always help you, especially at this level.
“Guys are so talented, so good, any extra work or mental toughness or whatever you can use to help yourself, gives you an advantage.”
Preston, who talks to Dillon two or three times a week, will be at Rogers Arena on Friday watching the game.
“Just watching him go through the ups and downs and growing pains of being in hockey … he was a kid who never stopped trying, never stopped believing in himself,” Preston said.
“He just loved the game and would do whatever it took to improve and develop.
“The biggest thing is he never stopped believing in himself and neither did his parents.”
And Preston says that Dillon serves as a great example for both young players and their parents.
Parents and players need to understand that just because a kid is drafted at 15 or plays rep hockey, that they are not always on the fast track to success.
“A lot of parents don’t understand that this is a journey, it is not a sprint or a marathon,” he said.
Too often he hears from parents who question whether putting the effort in to take the next step in development is worth it and the players don’t believe they will make it.
“A lot of times those kids stop chasing their dream because the hill is too far, it is too big of a mountain to climb,” Preston said.
“I never made it quite as far in hockey as I wanted and there are different reasons for that, but I always felt I gave it everything that I had so I never had any ‘what ifs.’”
“Brenden had a plan and he had goals and aspirations; he knew his hard work and his determination and his desire would pay off,” he said.
“He has absolutely dedicated his life to hockey since he was 15 years old.”
Had hockey not panned out, university would have been the next step for Dillon.
“Schooling was always big,” he said.
His father Edward is a doctor at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and his mom Deborah is a high school teacher at L.A. Matheson Secondary. They liked the fact that for each year Dillon played in the WHL, he gets money towards studying at a post-secondary institution.
— with files from Mark Stepneski/Dallas Stars