Against All Odds
The story of Brenden Dillon's winding road to the NHL
Brenden Dillon sat in the Dallas Stars locker room after a recent practice, and talked about how far he has come over the last few years.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Dillon said. “Looking across the room at Jaromir Jagr, Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, it’s pretty cool. Stephane Robidas, I’m getting to live at his house. Ten years ago, I remember watching him play for the Montreal Canadiens. Now, I am driving to the rink with him. It’s pretty awesome. It’s surreal.”
That feeling he had in the locker room was different than the one he had almost eight years ago, a few months short of his 15th birthday, sitting in front of a computer and hoping to see his name pop up on the screen as a selection in the Western Hockey League’s Bantam Draft. His name never appeared.
“It was tough at the time,” Dillon said. “I was scrolling on the screen, you get a tear in your eye and mom walks behind and asks, ‘What’s wrong?’ And you say, ‘Aw, nothing,” and kind of walk away.”
The odds were stacked against Dillon in that WHL draft. He stood just 5-2 at the time. And as he sat in the Dallas locker room – listed at 6-3, 228 pounds – you realize just how far he has come.
“It’s been a long, hard road,” he said.
It was a road that’s led him to the NHL, where he made the Dallas Stars out of training camp this season and where he’s not just driving to the rink with Robidas, but has been skating with him recently in the top four on Dallas’ defense.
It’s been hard not to notice the 22-year-old Dillon. He’s played well. There was a spirited fight with Jordan Tootoo in a game against Detroit. In a recent win over Phoenix, he notched his first assist, then his first goal and then put a big hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson, which led to a scrap with Kyle Chipchura. That added up to a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.
“He’s a good skater, he’s quick. He’s a big bodied guy that can bring physicality,” said Dallas assistant coach Paul Jerrard. “I think the one thing that maybe people don’t know about him is that he is sneaky tough. He’s a lot tougher than people think, especially in fights. He had a great bout with Tootoo.”
But that road to the NHL this season saw a lot of hard work, a little help from nature, and some bumps. After being passed over in the WHL Bantam Draft, Dillon grew eight inches over two years and made the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds on a tryout just shy of his 17th birthday. After his second season in Seattle he had hopes of being drafted by an NHL team. NHL Central Scouting had him ranked 91st among North American skaters for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. But there were no takers on draft weekend.
“It was another disappointing, frustrating time,” Dillon said. “You get your hopes up so high. I remember hearing the draft rankings at the end of the year, and I was pretty excited. But I didn’t have a very good year. I was kind of taking things for granted, I almost expected things to come. I don’t know if I was thinking that I was better than I was, but I definitely had that swagger to myself. I remember that summer when I didn’t get drafted it was a big eye-opener that things weren’t going to come easy, things weren’t just going to happen, you are going to have to make them happen. From that year on I think I really took steps forward in my game, and just never looked back.”
Dillon had a breakout campaign in his final season of juniors, racking up 59 points (8 goals, 51 assists) in 72 games for Seattle and several NHL teams, including the Stars, came calling on Dillon.
“He was in the draft for a couple of years and the guys knew about him and followed him. In his 20th year, he stepped up and (Stars WHL scouts) Dennis (Holland) and (Shane) Churla were both on him,” said Les Jackson, Dallas Assistant GM, Scouting and Development. “He showed signs of progress, and you could see his game was accelerating.”
Dillon said at least ten, perhaps as many as 15 teams, contacted him that final season of juniors.
“The Stars were the first team I met with,” Dillon said. “I talked with Les Jackson, Shane Churla. We had really good talks and then I had a chance to meet with Joe Nieuwendyk. It was just an unbelievable organization.”
The Stars ended up signing Dillon to an entry-level contract as a free agent in March 2011. Later that month, after he wrapped up his career in juniors, he headed to the AHL and began playing under then Texas Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan and Jerrard, the assistant there at the time.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start,” Dillon said. “Paulie and Gully were great, throwing me right in there and giving me every chance to succeed. They put me with Max Fortunus, who was a veteran guy and been in the league for quite a few years. He was really good with mentoring me.”
And the buzz about Dillon started to build.
“I’ve never seen a kid –when I was in the American League – come right out of juniors, step into a season when were in a playoff battle right to the end, step into our lineup, play top four minutes, and play it very effectively,” said Gulutzan. “The second thing I remember is what a quality individual he was. You could see he reeked of character as a young guy, mature, very passionate. He fit in right away with the group.”
Added Jerrard, “I remember his first fight in the American League - and I forget the guy’s name in Milwaukee – but we were looking at each other in the locker room at the end of the period saying, ‘Whoa, where did this come from?’”
That guy in Milwaukee was Kelsey Wilson, who had racked up about 60 fights over four AHL seasons before squaring off against Dillon, the kid from juniors in his first pro fight.
Last season was Dillon’s first full was one as a pro. It was a forgettable one for the Texas Stars, but Dillon played well. He tallied 29 points (6 goals, 23 assists) and 97 penalty minutes in 76 games. His season highlight came in early April, when he was called up to Dallas and played in his first NHL game as the Stars took on St. Louis in the regular season finale.
“It was a dream come true, “said Dillon. “The guys were great in making me feel a part of the group and calming my nerves. When you get to this level you are playing against the best players in the world. In that game there was David Perron, Andy McDonald, David Backes, T.J. Oshie.”
Dillon was impressive, logging 19:59 of ice time, registering a game-high six shots on goal, four hits and three blocked shots. Gulutzan, now coaching in Dallas, had high praise for the young defenseman.
“I thought his game was strong,” Gulutzan said after the game. “I can see he’s made strides from when I had him a year ago. I think you guys can judge for yourselves, but I think he’s going to be right around it come September.”
Well, September brought the lockout. Dillon bided his time in the AHL the first three months of 2012-13, but he locked down a roster spot with Dallas once the NHL resumed in January, and he hasn’t disappointed. His average ice time has been heading up as the season has moved along, and he and Robidas seem to be finding some good chemistry on the blue line recently.
“He’s got all the tools you can ask for in a defenseman,” said Robidas. “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 kind of situation. He’s got the whole package.”
“He sure has (made a lot of progress). He’s in the National Hockey League,” added Jerrard. “He’s a guy who gets better and better because he wants to get better and better.”
Dillon knows he’ll have to continue to work to stay at the NHL level. He’s been through disappointment before, and doesn’t like how it feels. He’s taken things for granted before, and knows the cost. Those WHL and NHL drafts are a thing of the past, but they still linger and provide motivation.
“It’s still something that’s in the back of the head every day,” he said. “It makes you want to work and makes you want to prove to people why I am here, why I want to stay here and be here.”
And right now he is here, and he couldn’t help soak it in as he sat in the Dallas Stars locker room.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to think back where I was to where I am now. Things like that happen – growth spurts, summers of putting in the work and putting on size to help yourself. It’s been cool.”