By Iain MacIntyre, PNG
When he was in elementary school in North Delta, Brenden Dillon and his friends were elated to learn the administration had decided to supply hockey sticks and balls at recess.
“It was a huge deal when we were able to get some hockey sticks,” Dillon said Wednesday, smiling at the recollection. “But there were only 10 sticks to play five-on-five, so it was always a race from your classroom to see who could get a stick first.”
At Immaculate Conception catholic school, Dillon learned to be one of the first to the equipment. He has had to run and work for every opportunity in hockey ever since.
Undrafted in the Western Hockey League and then the National Hockey League, the robust, 25-year-old defenceman is in a Stanley Cup Final after helping the San Jose Sharks beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 to win the Western Conference title in six games.
He can have as many hockey sticks as he likes.
“I’ve always had that approach — a chip on my shoulder,” said Dillon, who calls Surrey home.
“I’ve always kind of flown under the radar, stayed in the background.
“I played with a lot of highly-touted guys and highly-drafted guys. It was something I always kind of kept in the back of my head when I was training with them in the summer and going to training camp with guys. I skated with pros in the summertime in Langley and Burnaby and I’d look around the room, like: ‘I can skate like these guys. I’m as big as these guys. Why can’t I do it?’”
One of the guys he played against in minor hockey and in summer programs is his teammate, Sharks’ goalie Martin Jones of North Vancouver.
Jones may have been highly-touted, especially last summer when San Jose surrendered a first-round draft pick to get him from the Los Angeles Kings, via the Boston Bruins, but he was not highly-drafted. Like Dillon, he wasn’t drafted in the NHL but earned a free-agent contract and worked his way up to the best league in the world.
Last Wednesday against the Blues, Jones made 24 saves and succeeded where every Sharks’ goalie before him failed, getting his team to the Stanley Cup Final.
On Monday night, the Sharks lost 3-2 to Pittsburgh Penguins to open the Cup series.
“I think what’s special about this group is it’s everybody,” Jones said. “It’s not one or two guys. It’s been a real group effort. I think that’s what’s most special about this.
“We’ll enjoy it tonight. But we know we have the real work ahead of us still. The goal every year is to win a Stanley Cup. We knew we had a group that could do it. We’ve really come together. We’ve played really well the second half of the season. The goal is always to win a Stanley Cup.”
Jones won a Stanley Cup as Jonathan Quick’s backup on the Los Angeles Kings two years ago. But he had never started a playoff game before the Sharks acquired him and essentially handed him the keys to their team.
Dillon, who established himself as an NHLer with the Dallas Stars, was traded to San Jose last season.
He signed a free-agent contract with the Stars weeks before finishing his junior career with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2011, then came home and was swept up in the Canucks’ Stanley Cup Final whirlwind.
“I remember coming home from junior and (the Canucks) were like the big thing with me and my buddies,” he said. “Where were we going to go to watch the next game? Who was in, who was out of the lineup? What are we going to do after the game?
“To think that was only five years ago and now here I am, at this stage in our playoffs, is pretty cool.”
He didn’t know what to expect coming to San Jose from Dallas after 4½ years in the Stars’ organization. He grew up as a pro with several players, including Dallas captain Jamie Benn. A few of them had graduated together to the NHL from the Stars’ minor-league team. Dallas felt like it would be home.
“But when you get traded, you’ve got to look at the good as well as the bad,” Dillon said. “A year-and-a-half after the trade, you look where I am and I can’t think of a better place to be. These guys did a tremendous job welcoming me into the group.”
Just like Dillon helped make Jones feel welcome when the goalie followed him to the Silicon Valley.
He admitted he had been trying, with mixed success, to not think past the Blues and the conference final.
It’s funny; from the time they’re old enough to know about the Stanley Cup, Canadian kids dream of playing for one, fantasize hoisting it above their heads. Then in the NHL, they’re nearly close enough to touch it but do everything in their power to ignore that magical possibility.
“It’s crazy just to think about it,” Dillon said, shaking his head before Game 6. “I talked to Jonesie about it because he won the Cup with the Kings. Just thinking back to the L.A. series (and the Sharks’ first-round win), that seems like forever ago. The bumps and bruises, the mental grind, the three series, it’s incredible.”
And it gets better.