Brenden Dillon's story is typical of a guy in his early 20s playing Div. 1 recreational hockey.
He grew up in the Newton area and played under the Surrey Minor Hockey Association umbrella starting when he was four years old.
At 15, he was playing for the Surrey midget B2 Lightning after being cut from Surrey's A1 and B1 teams. So one would assume, a little further down the road, Dillon could possibly earn a roster spot on a junior B team, or even a B.C. Hockey League squad if he really worked hard at it.
But this is where Dillon's tale offers a twist most would never had seen coming.
This season, Dillon is playing between 16 and 18 minutes a night on the Dallas Stars' blue line.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We need to rewind back to the aforementioned midget B2 season, when Dillon began training with Tim Preston of Langley-based Impact Hockey Development.
This was back when the NHL was a dream that floated through Dillon's consciousness as he went to sleep at night.
"To be honest you always have your doubts, especially when kids your age around 15 were being drafted to major junior and getting agents, and getting recruited to move away from home to high-end hockey schools and what not," Dillon said from Dallas.
Dillon wasn't about to give up on the dream. His goal from the moment he played his first game as a four-year-old was to one day play in the NHL.
"I loved to work out, loved going to the rink every day, learning new things that could make me better," he said. "Flying under the radar, I got to see and play against some pretty good players, and I always wanted to try and be better than them. It didn't matter that they were bigger or faster - whatever it might have been."
This was what Preston stressed to his young charge: you have to want to get better.
"I try to have that mindset with me, every day," Dillon said.
Preston said Dillon had a skating foundation in place, but wasn't a highly sought-after prospect at 15.
That was before he sprouted up in both size and weight.
"He wasn't very tall, so as a defenceman, when you're trying to get noticed by WHL scouts, one of the first things they look for is height and size," Preston said. "They want that prototypical big, strong defenceman that can make a play. He was just a late blooming kid that hadn't hit his growth spurt yet."
The one crucial intangible for Dillon was a single-minded focus that earned him a spot with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, starting in 2007/08.
"Seattle took a chance on a young guy," Preston said. "They saw something in him that others didn't. He was able to come in and make that team."
By his fourth and final year of major junior, in 2010/11, the then 19-year-old defenceman finished second in Thunderbirds scoring with 59 points while leading the team with 51 assists.
It was in his final two years of junior hockey when Dillon started believing he could play pro hockey. A goal once so far off was taking shape.
"I always wanted to be, and worked like I was going to be one [a pro], but it wasn't until my last year in the WHL when I truly realized I had the abilities," Dillon said. "I was pretty successful my last year and started to be approached by agencies and NHL teams, and it was then that it really hit me that I might be able to become a pro hockey player one day."
Preston said Dillon's passion for hockey, and training, lifted him to a different stratosphere.
"He is the absolute hardest-working guy I've ever seen as far as his off-ice training habits, his commitment to development, his structure in his diet - everything about his life, he dedicated to becoming a better athlete," Preston said.
Even so, an NHL club never drafted Dillon.
"That was a really tough time for him," Preston said. "But instead of getting down, he just thought 'I'm just going to train harder, I'm just going to get better, I'm going to do whatever it takes.'"
Dillon joined the American Hockey League Texas Stars and along the way, evolved into a two-way defenceman, using his skating ability and 6'3" 210pound frame to his advantage.
"I like to use my skating and puck moving ability offensively and then use my size and strength defensively to be physical and hard to play against," Dillon said. "I think I just played to my strengths which have been my skating and compete level.
I just have always wanted to be someone who impacts the game and help my team, whatever it might be."
Dillon said from day one, Stars general manager Joe Niewendyuk and director of scouting and player development Les Jackson were supportive and helped him grow, putting him in situations to be successful all the way from his last year of junior - when he first signed with the Stars - all the way to this year, when he made the opening night roster.
They weren't the only ones who welcomed Dillon into the NHL. His formal introduction to the league came during his first ever shift, when he was steamrolled by St.Louis Blues' captain David Backes.
"It was almost like a, 'Hello, welcome to the NHL, kid,'" Dillon remembered.
Playing his first NHL game was a dream come true.
"Being out there in front of 20,000 people, it was something I'll never forget," Dillon said. "I was lucky enough that the Dallas Stars flew my parents in for the game, as well, which was pretty cool that they were able to share that with me."
Having his dad, Ed, see him in a Stars uniform was extra special.
"He's been there through everything: my ups my downs. He's supported me every step of the way," Dillon said. "Every practice, every road trip for a tournament or game, he took me to and I can't thank him enough for all he's done.
"He got me into hockey and coached me until I was 13."
The support doesn't end with immediate family. Dillon said Preston and Paul Fricker helped him both on and off the ice. They helped Dillon realize what it takes to be not just a better hockey player, but also a better person away from the rink.
Dillon credits Preston, himself a Seattle Thunderbirds alumnus, with molding him into the player he is today.
"Training with Tim, really I can't stress enough how much it has done for me," Dillon said. "If you looked back at the person, the hockey player I was seven years ago till now, most people wouldn't recognize me."
Playing a game or two in the NHL is one thing, staying in the greatest hockey league in the world is quite another.
From experience, Dillon isn't taking anything for granted.
"Every day is a new day, every game is a new game, every practice is a new practice and it doesn't matter what happened the day before, you have to have a short memory and focus on the next day," Dillon said.
"There's always someone somewhere working to try and take your spot and you have to realize that. If you're in the minors, you want to get up and be in that spot."
Dillon said nothing worth doing comes easy in life.
"I want to give myself every opportunity I can to be the best that I can be," he said.
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