By Tim Pigulski
The path to the National Hockey League hasn't been an easy one for former Seattle Thunderbird and current Dallas Star Brenden Dillon. In fact, it wasn't even a sure bet that he'd have a shot at playing Major Junior hockey before the Thunderbirds took a chance on the defenseman from Surrey, British Columbia who was considered undersized when his Bantam Draft rolled around.
At the time, Dillon stood just a measly 5 feet 2 – compare that to current Thunderbird defenseman Jared Hauf, who was over a foot taller as a 15-year-old. Despite his small stature, Dillon and his family hoped that a team would take a chance on him – perhaps using a late-round draft choice – and he'd have an opportunity to prove his worth.
Their wishes went unanswered, however, as each team passed on the optimistic 14-year-old multiple times before the draft finished.
"You wish you could be drafted and be the first overall pick," Dillon said, recalling both of his draft experiences. "Just going through that experience would have been great, and hats off to everyone who has been drafted, but not everyone has that chance. I was sitting at home at the WHL draft and a lot of my friends and guys I played with my whole life were getting drafted. It makes you wonder if you're good enough or if there's a chance you're going to achieve your dream of playing in the NHL."
After the tough event that Dillon hoped would be an occasion to celebrate, T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell and company decided to keep an eye on him. Following a growth spurt that saw Dillon grow nine inches to 5 feet 11 while playing for the Hope Icebreakers of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League, the Thunderbirds decided he might be ready to take the next step. When he joined the team full-time as a 17-year-old, participating in 71 games as a rookie, Dillon was playing with a chip on his shoulder.
"I really wanted to prove those teams wrong and I was fortunate to have Seattle take a chance on me," said Dillon, now 22. "I wanted to prove myself to other teams in the league and make Seattle look good for continuing to scout me and take a chance on me. I had the same mindset going to Dallas."
Skipped over in three separate NHL drafts, Dillon was heavily scouted during his breakout 20-year-old season in Seattle, a campaign in which he registered career-highs in games played (72), goals (eight), assists (51), points (59), and penalty minutes (139). During that season, Dillon displayed a greatly improved skating ability, leading the Thunderbirds' rush out of their own zone, as well as the ability to play in every situation as he was on the team's top power-play and penalty-kill units, along with their top even-strength defensive pairing.
By the time he had signed with the Stars, Dillon had grown a foot since his WHL draft and was honored by the Thunderbirds as team captain. He was the WHL's fifth-leading scorer among defensemen that year and played by far the most minutes of any player on Seattle's roster.
Dillon spent his first two seasons in Seattle under the tutelage of current New York Islander defenseman and former fourth-overall pick Thomas Hickey, who we spoke to last week. Surprisingly, the apprentice made his NHL debut before his mentor, suiting up in one game for the Stars as a 21-year-old.
"It's another one of those weird things in hockey. It's all about timing, and Hicks was behind a lot of good defensive prospects and players in L.A.," Dillon said of his former teammate. "I was really happy to see him finally get a good opportunity this year with the Islanders and I still look up to him. Skating in practice or watching him in games, he's always been someone I've been able to learn a lot from. He's a heck of a player."
His fondness for the city of Seattle is obvious when speaking to Dillon, who remembers a number of important people and significant events from his four years here.
"There are a few things I remember really well. My first season we beat Kelowna in the first round of the playoffs in Game 7. The road team won each of the first six games, but we took Game 7 on home ice, which was an incredible experience," he said. "Also, my first goal, which ended up being part of a Gordie Howe hat trick. I had my first goal, my first fight, and I think my second assist in that game.
"I think the last thing has to be signing with the Stars at the end of my last season. It was amazing the support I got from everyone from the security guards when you get to the rink to the fans during warmups."
When asked if he could identify one individual that provided the greatest influence while he was a Thunderbird, Dillon said it was difficult and started by acknowledging his coaching staff at the time – Rob Sumner, Turner Stevenson, and Paul Fricker. Those three, he said, helped him transform from a 15-year-old who wouldn't listen in practice to a captain as a 20-year-old.
"As with everyone, though, I have to thank my parents. My dad has been there from day one and I'd say he probably came down for 90 to 95 percent of my home games. He'd make the trip down from Vancouver for almost every one, getting off work at 5 and jumping on I-5 to make it in time for the start.
"It's a really good feeling. You always want to make your parents proud. They're the ones who were waking up and taking you to practices at 5:30 a.m. while you were growing up."
Those memories and prominent figures lead Dillon – who many believe was Dallas' best defenseman last year as a 22-year-old – to be confident that professional hockey would have success in Seattle.
"I definitely think [it would succeed]. They want to bring their NBA team back and with the Mariners and Seahawks I think they're definitely a sports town," Dillon said. "With how close in proximity Seattle is to Canada and their fan base, plus how hockey-crazy Canadians are, I bet they'd drive down for games and could develop a good rivalry with Vancouver. I still like to go back to the city and with all those great people, it'd definitely be a great destination for an NHL team."
Rumors are already swirling that Dillon could be in line to receive the honor as Dallas' captain within the next few seasons, just a short time after wearing the "C" in Seattle.
Dillon's first NHL fight occurred just seven games into his first full season against renowned veteran scrapper Jordin Tootoo of the Detroit Red Wings. In that match, Dillon asserted himself as someone for the rest of the league to take note of.
Just days later, Dillon scored his first goal, first assist, and participated in his second bout with Phoenix's Kyle Chipchura – another player who is no stranger to dropping the gloves.
It didn't take long – just about two years into his professional career – for the Stars to know they had something special on their hands. From undrafted free agent to playing in all 48 games as a rookie, earning some Calder Trophy consideration as the league's top newcomer, and cementing himself as a key part of Dallas' blue line moving forward, the future is bright for this former Thunderbird.
"At the end of the day, hard work and never letting go of the dream were a big part of my success," he said. "I watched guys I played against do well and wondered why I couldn't do that, too."
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.