“It’s a lifelong connection that I’ll always have. Every time I go back to Seattle whether it’s just to watch a Mariners game or just going down to shop, whatever it might be, I have nothing but unbelievable memories about the city and my time there, especially for my hockey career. I think when you’re away from your family at age 17, 18, 19, 20; those are big years in your life. You’re going from a teenager into a man during those years socially as well as making good life decisions, not just hockey decisions. You learn so much, and those times were awesome for me.”
Those are the words of former Seattle Thunderbirds captain, and current San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon. From the ages of 16 to 20, Dillon played for the Thunderbirds and notched 94 points in 280 games. This year, at age 25, he was a crucial part of the blue line for a Sharks team that won the NHL’s Western Conference before scuffling in the Stanley Cup Final. As with most players who climb the ranks of hockey’s junior and minor leagues, Dillon expresses tremendous gratitude for the team that raised him throughout his formative years.
“I was very fortunate to be on the same team for all four of my years in the Western League,” Dillon said. “[Head coach] Rob Sumner was huge for me, obviously [general manager] Russ [Farwell], the people that surrounded me in Seattle. We had a great group of coaches, great group of players.”
In those four years playing for Seattle, the defensive-minded Dillon saw his point totals increase in every season. The 2010-11 campaign represented one of several breakthroughs in his budding career. During that season, in which he spent his only season wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey, Dillon dished out 51 assists, good for second most by a defenseman in team history. In March of 2011 he signed as a free agent with the Dallas Stars. Just over a year later, Dillon attained the dream of thousands of kids lacing up their youth-sized skates, playing in an NHL game. His debut came on April 7, 2012 in Dallas in a game against the St. Louis Blues. Despite being four years removed from the monumental day, and the whirlwind of emotions and events that can turn vivid memories into indecipherable blurs, Dillon has one moment from that night which is etched into his brain with incredible clarity.
“I think my first or second shift I got absolutely rocked by David Backes. It was kind of like ‘OK, welcome to the NHL,” Dillon said. “I think after that I just started to play, started to skate, started to play my game. I think it was something where, when you get to the NHL, you want to stay there. You get that little bit of taste of it, it was the last game of the season, for me I just said ‘You know what? I don’t ever want to go back. This is where I want to be. This is what I worked my whole life to get to.”
While Dillon did go back to the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League to start the 2012-13 year, his career immediately began an upward trajectory. The big club in Dallas called him up for the last 48 games of the 12-13 season. He scored the first eight points of his career that season, but more importantly, he learned many of the advanced nuances of the game that are needed to succeed on a high level. As a 22 year-old sharing a locker room with hockey royalty in Jaromir Jagr, a 1,000 point scorer in Ray Whitney, and seasoned veterans in Stephane Robidas and Brenden Morrow, the wide-eyed Dillon tried to soak in as much knowledge as possible.
When the door closed on the 2012-13 NHL season, another one opened for Dillon. In May of 2013 he got the chance to represent his home country of Canada in the IIHF World Championship. Held in Stockholm, Sweden, the tournament gave Dillon a chance to showcase his skills on a global stage as well as skate alongside some of the NHL’s best players from north of the border.
“Oh, that was huge. For me, growing up I always loved watching the World Juniors, the World Championships, and the Olympics. They were always things that were obviously a goal for myself. You want to play for your country and wear your country’s flag,” Dillon said. “I got the call from [Team Canada general manager] Steve Yzerman to come play for your country in the World Championships. It was unbelievable. You look at the roster and you see Steven Stamkos, Andrew Ladd, Claude Giroux, P.K. Subban, Dan Hamhuis, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle. It was an All-Star team. To be able to be in the mix on a team with those guys was definitely something I’ll always remember for the rest of my life.”
Upon returning to Dallas for the 2013-14 season, Dillon said he felt a substantial change to his confidence. Being able to represent a national team on a stage as big as the World Championship is undoubtedly a validation of a player’s skill, particularly when the player is selected by Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman. The confidence manifested itself into tangible results as well. In that 2013-14 season, playing under a new head coach in Lindy Ruff, Dillon logged the most ice time of his career and helped the Stars reach the playoffs for the first time in six years. Again, Dillon credits many of the veterans around him such as Stanley Cup champions Alex Goligoski and Sergei Gonchar for providing their perspectives on the game and making him feel comfortable in any situation.
“I think even still to this day I like to think of myself as being a sponge whenever I’m talking to any coaches, to any management, to any players on my team,” Dillon said. “Playing with guys like Goose [Alex Goligoski], guys like Gonchar, there’s not too many situations that they haven’t been in, especially winning a Stanley Cup. That’s invaluable experience in itself. Even from this past season being able to have played in one, until you’ve really, really been in that scenario you really truly don’t know what it’s like.”
Playing in a Stanley Cup Final is no guarantee for a player; just ask the dozens of guys to play years in the league without so much as a playoff appearance. Dillon understands how fortunate he and his teammates were to reach hockey’s biggest stage in June. The feat becomes even more impressive when you consider the adversity they overcame to get there.
The Sharks lost a game at home to the Minnesota Wild on December 12 which dropped their record to 14-14-1 and extended a losing streak to six games, marking the worst stretch of their season. From that point on San Jose went 32-16-5, good enough to finish third in the Pacific Division and grab a playoff spot. In the first round of the postseason the Sharks were pitted against the Los Angeles Kings, a heated in-state rival that had bounced San Jose from the playoffs in each of their last two appearances. The Sharks got a king-sized monkey off their back when they swam past LA in five games, moving on to defeat Nashville in a thrilling seven game series before besting the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals. When the Sharks stepped on to the ice for their organization’s first ever Stanley Cup Finals, they were ultimately undone by the speed and skill of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lifted the Cup after Game 6 in San Jose’s SAP Center. After such an exhilarating and exhausting ride through the NHL’s gauntlet, Dillon has finally had time to reflect on the experience.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a journey that not everyone gets to experience, I was very fortunate to be able to reach the Finals and be a Western Conference champion,” Dillon said. “At the same time there’s a lot of disappointment and frustration from the side of, you get that close to something and get to see the other team be on the other end of things. Be on top of the world, be the best team in the world, I think for us as a group we were counted out of a lot of series. I think even from the beginning of the year there was a lot of talk in the Pacific Division of how good LA was and how good Anaheim was, we were kind of in the backburner. Going into our first series with LA people were thinking we didn’t stand a chance.”
Speaking to Dillon for even thirty minutes gives one the impression that he is a kid at heart. He speaks in a permanent frenzied, upbeat tone and is quick to chirp old teammates or have a goodhearted laugh at his own expense. His childlike sense of wonder also becomes apparent when he talks about playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
“It doesn’t really hit you until you skate out for warmups and see the absolutely jam packed stands or coming off after our pregame skate and there being 200-300 people in your dressing room, media wise,” Dillon remarked. “I think one thing that really stood out was getting into Pittsburgh for Game 1. You know, we travel in all the way from San Jose obviously. Getting off the bus and seeing the tons and tons of people outside the hotel as we’re getting off in our suits and bags and walking into our hotel. There’s people booing us and there are people as you’re driving through the city giving you the thumbs down. It was just pretty cool and I think that’s something you’re able to realize ‘Hey, OK, we’re in a battle here. This is going to be a lot of fun.”
Dillon has certainly come a long way, both geographically and in terms of maturation, since his days in the WHL. He revealed that during his days as a Thunderbird he probably ‘kept that Panera Bread [in Kent Station] in business’, and also said his fondest memory involved a postgame celebration in the locker room set to the tune of “The Time” by the Black Eyed Peas. Dillon even mentioned with some trepidation that he thinks he still has a video of the celebration on his cell phone. Even today, as a man in his mid-twenties with over 300 combined NHL regular season and playoff games under his belt, he still describes his hockey exploits with a twinkle in his voice.
“When you’re away from the rink or you’re just lying in your hotel room, you’re kind of thinking ‘Wow, here I am playing against Sidney Crosby tomorrow. Hey wow here I am playing with Joe Thornton and going for the Stanley Cup,’” Dillon says with a hint of awe. “I think those are times when you kind of think back to ‘Geez here I am. Nine years ago I was just trying to make the Western Hockey League as a 16 year-old. If I was a 16 year-old kid, what I would give to be in the situation that I’m in, and who would have thunk it?”
While Dillon has made a home on San Jose’s blue line, he is still an advocate for the NHL to bring a team to the Pacific Northwest.
“I would love for the NHL to come to Seattle. Being there, being a hockey player there, I don’t see why they can’t have an NHL team. It’s a sports city, it’s a sports town,” Dillon exclaimed. “I love the Seattle area, all around. My first year I was living in Bellevue, and then from there I moved down to Kent, Black Diamond specifically. I know one place every time I’m back I always go to the Testy Chef which is over by my billets’ place just down from Black Diamond. I still keep in touch with [them] all the time. It’s a little breakfast spot. It’s awesome. I come down at least once a summer.”
If everything goes according to plan, next summer Dillon may be coming down with a Stanley Cup in his arms.