On the rugged shores of Lake Erie, kids grow up on quiet streets like the one Stephen Dhillon calls home, whimsically pretending the surface beneath their skates — wheels or metal blades, concrete or ice, depending on the time of year — is the hallowed sheet at First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo.
In yesteryear, kids might have emulated Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine or Phil Housley. Later, Dominik Hasek, Miroslav Satan or Michael Peca.
Born in 1998, Dhillon was a Ryan Miller man, though his favorite goalie is Martin Brodeur.
The current Niagara IceDogs netminder tended goal at the Sabres’ home arena last October in an Ontario Hockey League game, fulfilling the yearnings of many a young lad who grew up wearing sweaters with swords on them. His team fell to the Erie Otters that day, but that couldn’t crush Dhillon’s sentiments.
“As a little kid, you dream of being able to play in that building,” Dhillon said.
That’s closer than fellow Buffalo-bred prospect Griffin Luce ever got. The grandson of former Sabres player, assistant and head of player development Don Luce — whose son, Scott, today holds a similar personnel position with the Florida Panthers — once “got to go out on the ice during one intermission” when grandpa was still with Buffalo, Griffin Luce said.
He was 6 at the time.
“It was a long time ago,” said Luce, a member of the U.S. National Under-18 Team, “but I still remember it.”
So both Dhillon and Luce will lace up with a little added emotion for Thursday’s CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center. Dhillon and Luce both ended up on Team in the 7 p.m. ET matchup — which NHL Network will broadcast — featuring the best young talent the U.S. has to offer.
Luce expects more than 25 friends and family to show up. Dhillon had four planned attendees under his name but was scrambling to find more tickets as of Monday night.
“They’re all unbelievably talented players,” Dhillon said of his Prospects Game teammates and opponents, who will play on teams coached by former NHLers Jeremy Roenick and Derek Plante. “It’s a great honor to be named to this game.”
A twist of fate ensured Dhillon played hockey at all. When he was 5, his father’s job transfer saw the family move from Jackson, Miss., to the heart of Buffalo. Dhillon’s father used to cart him around the ice at Jackson’s one available rink, fostering an early love for a game that was much more accessible after the move.
Six years ago, that same ice arena was torn down, Dhillon said.
Had the family not migrated, Dhillon said, “It would’ve been a completely different lifestyle. You get married a lot younger, [Mississippi is] a huge football place, and I probably wouldn’t be playing hockey anymore.”
As it stands, he’s morphed into one of the United States’ top goalie prospects. One of the smartest, too. In June, he was awarded the Ivan Tennant Memorial Award as the OHL’s top academic high school player.
Luce, meanwhile, wasn’t born in Buffalo. He wasn’t raised there, either. But he claims Williamsville, a suburb on the city’s northeastern corner where his grandparents have lived in the same house for more than 40 years.
Luce visits there so often, he gave USA Hockey his grandparents’ address for official documentation purposes. Most of his aunts, uncles and cousins live nearby, too.
“I’ve got a lot of stories from when my dad was growing up there playing football, pond hockey, street hockey,” said Luce, a 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman who appeared in 37 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad last season and is committed to the University of Michigan. “A lot of memories.”
Luce’s favorite: dad and his friends often played pickup games on a frozen pond outside the nearby Sisters of Charity Hospital. The same woman in hospital attire would always scold them for trespassing into private grounds.
The next day, they’d be back at it again.
“They’ve had such a big influence on me and my hockey career,” Luce said of his father and grandfather, who still scouts players for the Philadelphia Flyers organization. “Growing up, they’d always tell me what I did right and wrong and help me build on my game and how to improve and get to the next level. Nowadays, they try to steer away from that; they just want me to go out there and play, and they’re still there to support me and stuff like that.”
If you count Luce — who has dual citizenship after spending most of his childhood in St. Thomas, Ontario — seven New Yorkers will take part in Thursday night’s proceedings: Luce, Dhillon, Adam Fox (Jericho), J.D. Greenway (Potsdam), Luke Kirwan (Dewitt), Charlie McAvoy (Long Beach) and Tage Thompson (Oyster Bay). The state has churned out the likes of Patrick Kane, Dustin Brown, Todd Marchant, Craig Conroy, Joe Mullen, Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Jimmy Howard, to name a few. The pipeline shows no signs of ceasing operation anytime soon with Jack Eichel, last year’s AAPG player of the game, being selected second overall in last year’s NHL Entry Draft.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get play with so many talented guys from all around the United States,” Luce said. “I’m hoping to have some fun.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.