Dhillon undeterred by draft snubs
Goaltender Stephen Dhillon is back for his third season with the Niagara IceDogs. PHOTO BY: TERRY WILSON/OHL IMAGES
Stephen Dhillon is a study in perseverance.
The 19-year-old netminder is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for the Niagara IceDogs this season, yet only three years ago the Buffalo native wasn’t sure if he even belonged in the Ontario Hockey League.
Dhillon spent his rookie campaign with the IceDogs on the sidelines, stuck behind Brent Moran and Brandon Hope and seeing a paltry 151 minutes of action over four games.
But looking back, Dhillon feels that season may have been a blessing in diguise.
He said he worked tirelessly in practice and gained the respect of the coaching staff and his teammates for his selfless attitude.
“The first year, it was no secret I didn’t play much,” he said. “It was sort of a character builder. You had to see what you were made of. It would have been easy to quit. It was tough sometimes, knowing you were never going to get that chance, that you were just going to have to wait and the next year you may not even make the team.
“That year definitely helped me being with the team. The guys were supportive, and that really helped.”
Dhillon’s mental approach that season no doubt helped him through the endless practices and meetings, knowing he had virtually no chance to play.
“I think being mentally strong is something I’ve always had. It was something I grew up with, I guess,” he said.
“When I was in school in Buffalo, I had hockey and school and had to pull all-nighters to get the work done and that was sort of tough.”
Niagara goaltending coach Ryan Ludzik wasn’t part of the organization that season, but uses Dhillon’s story as an example of how hard work pays off.
“I remember him hearing about coming here all year and not playing,” Ludzik said. “He’s earned everything he’s got. We leaned on him a lot last year and we are going to lean on him again this year, because we know he can do it in every aspect.
“He really put his head down and pushed through it.”
Dhillon’s perseverance paid off the next season when he finally saw some regular action and sported a 2.69 goals-against average in 24 games as the understudy to Moran and Alex Nedeljkovic.
Then last season, Dhillon blossomed into a full-time starter playing 59 games on a young, inexperienced club. That meant he faced a lot of shots — 2,312 of them, to be exact — a total that led the OHL by a wide margin. Peterborough Petes goaltender Dylan Wells, a St. Catharines native, was second with 1,848 – a whopping 464 fewer than Dhillon.
That’s a number the IceDogs would love to reduce this season.
“He broke team records for shots faced and saves made,” IceDogs general manager Joey Burke said. “He’s monumental (for us). He will be a huge, huge part of it this year and I think he’s up for the task.”
Dhillon has never been shy about his quest to play as many games as possible, and isn’t hesitant about asking when he does get a rare night off.
“I’d love to play every game,” he said. “I’m not sure Billy (head coach Billy Burke) will allow that, but we go in with the mentality we want to earn every game.
“Nothing is given, so coming in you have to earn a spot on the team and earn each game.”
That’s what Ludzik loves about Dhillon.
“Ideally, we’re expecting him to play a lot of games, but with a healthy balance and have our backup play a little larger role,” Ludzik said. “Not that Stephen can’t do it, but we’re expecting to go deeper in the playoffs and we need him healthy and rested up.
“I love it when goalies want to play. If he’s not playing he’ll ask why, and I like that about him. That’s the kind of guy you want and the kind of guy you win with.”
Dhillon’s don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude played a large part in helping him achieve his OHL goals.
He’s displayed the same tireless work ethic when it comes to his pro career, which has seen him twice passed over at the National Hockey League Entry Draft.
“I know it was a discouraging day for him at the NHL draft. We all thought he would get his name called, so that was disappointing,” Joey Burke said.
Ludzik seems certain Dhillon will get a break somewhere down the line.
“We talk about what he can control,” Ludzik said. “He can control how he practices, what he does off the ice in terms of preparation for games. He’s the most prepared guy I have seen.
“He’s a very strong, mental kid. If we keep doing the right things, sooner or later he’ll get that bounce, that break.”
Dhillon, who received an invitation from St. Louis Blues to play for their rookie team at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, seemed more intent on doing his job with the IceDogs than worrying about things he can’t control.
“The second time I went to the draft, and unfortunately it hasn’t worked out either time. But I’m very excited this year with the IceDogs,” he said. “It’s a very big year and I think we’re ready to make a move in the playoffs. We want a division title.”
Dhillon, who is a top-notch student, is giving the books a break this season while he commits totally to hockey. That will also give him a chance to watch younger brother Eric, who is also a goaltender and will suit up for the Thorold Blackhawks this season.