Dillon Simpson helped the 2009-10 Spruce Grove Saints win the Alberta Junior Hockey League championship at age 17.
A few months after a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four in his freshman season at the University of North Dakota, the Edmonton Oilers selected him at age 18 in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL entry draft.
At age 21, Simpson has returned to the Frozen Four in his senior season with UND as the team captain. North Dakota will meet its rivals from the University of Minnesota in Philadelphia on Thursday evening in the semifinals. Boston College and Union clash in the early game.
As he practiced in Ralph Engelstad Arena for the final time on Tuesday before his team flew east, Dillon found himself reflecting on all the friends he's made at UND, and the teammates he has shared triumphs and failures with during his time in Grand Forks.
His father, Craig, also found himself pondering his past. This just happens to be the 30th anniversary of Craig's trip to the national championship tournament with Michigan State.
“When I went with Michigan State it was at Lake Placid, four years after the Miracle on Ice,” Craig recalled. “It was exciting to be there. But it was nowhere as big a deal as it is now.”
Bowling Green beat Craig and Michigan State in the 1984 semifinals, thanks to the spectacular play of goalie Gary Kruzich. Bowling Green, a team that also included defenceman Garry Galley, who, like Craig, is now a Hockey Night in Canada analyst, went on to win the championship.
Dad knows best
In Dillon's trip to the 2011 Frozen Four, he didn't get a chance to suit up. As a freshman, he played in 30 of UND's 44 games, but in the final weekend in St. Paul, Minn., he watched as his team also was eliminated in the semifinals in a 2-0 loss to Michigan.
“We were a powerhouse team that season,” said Dillon, a managerial finance and corporate accounting major. “We were expected to win. We're more of an underdog this time. But what I learned is how much pride you need to take in your game and embrace the opportunity and have fun.”
“Have fun” is a refrain within the Simpson family. When Craig was a youngster playing minor hockey in London, Ont., and later at Michigan State, his father, Don, often would tell Craig to work hard and have fun. It's a similar message that Craig delivers to Dillon and his 17-year-old son Riley, a right wing in his second year with Spruce Grove.
“I'll fire off a text with some words of encouragement on game days,” said Craig, who watches most of UND's games online and attends one or two a season in person. “If he wants my opinion he knows I'm here for him. I'm so proud of him.”
Craig and his father will be in Philadelphia to watch Dillon and North Dakota play against Minnesota on Thursday. But if North Dakota advances to the championship final on Saturday, Craig will be reduced to getting updates during stoppages in play in his game for Hockey Night in Canada.
Craig was one of the game's top snipers during a 10-year NHL career that was cut short because of chronic back woes. He won Stanley Cups with the 1987-88 and 1989-90 Oilers and returned to the final as an Edmonton assistant coach in 2005-06.
So how come Dillon plays defence, not forward like Dad?
“I was a forward, but Dad coached me one summer and suggested I go back and play the point when I was 12,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenceman said. “My skating was the concern. I had a head for the game back there.”
Dillon has progressed nicely in his four years at UND. His ice time has increased. He has become a dependable two-way blue liner. He has become a strong leader as a senior. There is a chance that after this weekend concludes the Oilers will sign him and he'll join their AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City.
But for now, the focus is on the Frozen Four, and creating new memories for his family three decades later.
By Tim Wharnsby – Hockey Night In Canada