The end of August signals that last grasp at relaxation before autumn barrels toward us. For Surrey’s Brenden Dillon, however, it’s the perfect time of year to ditch relaxation and gear up for another NHL season.
“Summer has been great, but every time I get closer and closer to the hockey season, for me I just get real excited and I’m ready to rock and roll for it,” he said.
With NHL training camps mere weeks away, Dillon hit the ice on Kelowna last weekend and participated in a mini-camp hosted by Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. In case skating in a mini-camp hosted by an NHL coach wasn’t good enough, Dillon was surrounded by NHL talent such as Morgan Reilly, Mat Barzal, Brenden Gallagher and his teammate, goaltender Martin Jones.
Jones, a North Vancouver native, provides the Sharks with more Lower Mainland representation, along with Dillon. The two have now been on the same squad for three seasons, and even live in the same building in San Jose.
The Sharks Pacific Northwest connection grew stronger in February 2018, when general manager Doug Wilson made a deal to acquire Vancouver native Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s funny, but when Kaner first arrived here, we found out that he was actually living in the same building as Jonesy and I,” Dillon said. “It was a pretty crazy coincidence.”
“It’s good to have some guys that you can have a bit of similarity with when you talk about back home,” Dillon added. “You’re able to reminisce, whether that’s about minor hockey or certain areas where you like to hang out. Since we had that common Vancouver connection amongst us when Kaner came to our team, we just tried to make him feel at home and make him feel comfortable.”
With the Sharks now boasting three players from the Metro Vancouver area, Dillon no longer gets away with telling people he’s from Vancouver.
“When I was in Dallas, the Benn brothers (Jamie and Jordie) were the only ones from B.C., so I always just told people I was from Vancouver. Now, whenever I say I’m from Vancouver, I usually have Jonesy in my ear saying, ‘Dilly, you’re from Surrey.’”
While most of us would go down Dillon’s avenue, telling out-of-towners we’re from Vancouver, he’s now reminded of home on a more frequent basis. It’s a place he makes sure to visit at least once during the summer.
“I always go back to Surrey in the offseason,” he said. “I’ve gone back there every year. My parents still live in Newton so I’m always back visiting family.”
With fewer than 10 hockey players from Surrey, Delta and White Rock currently signed to NHL contracts, Dillon checks in as one of the most prominent athletes from the area.
“I think back to my childhood,” he recalled. “Being a huge Canucks fan and growing up around the area, If I ever saw a Canuck out when we were out at dinner, it made my day.”
“Now sometimes I get recognized when I’m home, whether that’s with high school friends, at the gym, kinds around the rink or out at the mall. People are very friendly and respectful around here, which is something I’m happy about.”
“I’m happy to call Vancouver and Surrey home.”
From Surrey to San Jose, rumours still run rampant
If you follow the NHL, you know that rumours surrounding some of the most notable names in the game were at the forefront this offseason. Two of those big names, John Tavares and Erik Karlsson, were both linked to San Jose at some point.
For players, it’s hard to escape those whispers, even during the offseason. That’s especially pertinent with the Tavares situation, since the Sharks were rumoured to be one of the front-runners for his services.
“There are so many guys these days where their job is to find those rumours and leaks, whether that’s talking to management or scouts or agents or players,” Dillon said. “Sometimes where there’s smoke there’s fire, but at the same time a lot of it’s just kind of hearsay and can just be thrown out as another rumour.”
“When it comes to things like the Tavares situation, it sounds like we were one of the finalists for him. Close but no cigar since we’re not able to have him which would have been huge for our team.”
“When a lot of those rumours come about, though, we’re just like the general public. We might know more about guys in our locker room but when it comes to other guys around the league, whether it’s watching TV or reading the newspaper, we usually just find out like everybody else.”
Tavares chose to be in the spotlight with Toronto Maple Leafs, but there’s no doubt NHL players often enjoy their ability to be inconspicuous in a city like San Jose. While Dillon can’t escape the spotlight as easily back home in Surrey, that luxury comes back as soon as he returns to the Silicon Valley.
“In San Jose, you have Golden State Warriors, the Athletics, the 49ers, the Giants. You have celebrities, and people from all walks of life here.”
“If you had Joe Thornton in Vancouver, I think nine out of 10 people would know who he was, whereas if you go down to San Jose, maybe nine out of 10 people would go, ‘Who’s that super tall guy with the beard?’”
Building on success and Vegas vendetta at the forefront for Dillon
On the ice, Dillon just came off one of his most successful seasons as an NHL player. Even though he’s known as a tough, stay-at-home defenceman, Dillon was able to set a career-high with 22 points. He also tied a career-high with 81 games played and his five goals were the most he scored since the 2013-14 season, when he was still with Dallas Stars.
In the playoffs, Dillon took it up a notch. He was on the ice for more even-strength goals than any Sharks defenceman and chipped in four assists in 10 games.
Unfortunately, the Sharks were unable to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, falling to Vegas Golden Knights in six games. It brought an abrupt halt to an otherwise successful season.
“It’s kind of exciting to have a year like that, and you never want it to end,” he said. “Being in the playoffs and losing in that second round to Vegas leaves one of those bittersweet tastes in your mouth, especially when you think you’re playing your best hockey.”
The Golden Knights were able to surprise everybody last year with their up-tempo play. Even though they won the Pacific Division during the regular season, Vegas was an underdog right up until the Stanley Cup Final.
“There are no easy games in the NHL anymore,” Dillon said. “Every team is amazing and very competitive, but when you go up against Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, you know you’re going to have to play your best game. When you went to play Vegas last year, I don’t know if there was anybody who could look you in the eye and tell you truthfully they thought they were going to be as good as they were. That’s no discredit to them, because they still had to play well, be prepared and execute. I think everyone going into Vegas now will be prepared for a tough game against an opponent who’s really dialed in.”
Including the regular season, the Sharks played 10 games total against Vegas in 2017-18, including five at T-Mobile Arena in Vegas. That means the Sharks got to experience playing hockey in Vegas more than any other road team last season.
“When you go out anywhere in Vegas it has a different vibe, for sure,” Dillon said. “That’s what they brought when it came to hockey. Whether that’s the music, in between periods or in between whistles, they made it an event and a show.”
“I think it just helps the league as a whole because you want to appeal to different markets, to not just the five-year-old kid who loves hockey but also non-hockey fans, like a 25-year-old kid celebrating a birthday or the 60-year-old celebrating an anniversary. You want to hit all of these areas (and) I think they’re doing a good job of that.”
While getting a few wins against Vegas next year would be nice, it’s all about getting back to the Finals for Dillon and the Sharks. Coming off a career year and heading into his seventh NHL season, Dillon is setting the bar high for himself.
“I just want to improve overall every year, that’s what I’m going for. When it comes to offensive statistics, you always want to be better. You want to have more goals, more assists, more points than the year before.”
“For a guy like myself I’m just scratching the surface and continuing to get better.”