Ask anyone involved with Canada’s National Junior Team – players, coaches, staff – about the key to success in a short-term competition, and you’re likely to hear various forms of the same answer.
Gelling as a team. Coming together quickly. Becoming fast friends. One team, one goal.
It’s a mindset impressed on players from the moment they enter the Program of Excellence at the U17 level, and it carries right through the IIHF World Junior Championship – the more comfortable players are together, the better they play and the more success they find.
Take a look, then, at the path Dillon Dubé took to his second World Juniors, and it is little wonder the Cochrane, Alta., native is serving as Captain Canada in Buffalo.
Dubé was something of a minor hockey nomad; he played in four communities in three provinces in eight years, which meant every couple of seasons he had to make new friends and learn to play with new teammates.
Now he’s doing the same thing, just on a much bigger stage and with 21 other players in the same situation.
“Bouncing around all the time, going to new teams … it is uncomfortable going to a team where you don’t know anybody,” Dubé says. “Coming to World Juniors, I think we just fit right in because no one really knows each other, so everybody is uncomfortable, and once you figure that out it helps you make a team.”
Born in Golden, B.C., Dubé played three seasons with the Rams before his family made the move to Alberta, where he played two years for the Cochrane Rockies and one with the Bow Valley Timberwolves. He joined the Airdrie Xtreme for his first year of Major Bantam before heading east to Saskatchewan to spend two seasons at Notre Dame, after which he made the jump to the Western Hockey League with the Kelowna Rockets.
The biggest step in his development was the decision to enroll at Notre Dame. The move to Wilcox, Sask., meant leaving home at just 14 years old to live, study and play at the renowned hockey factory, but Dubé was never truly alone.
“There was always something going on – I had 39 Grade 9s with me in the same dorm, so we got really tight and most of them are still some of my best friends,” he says. “Being able to be so close with them, and spending so much time with them, they were my family.”
If Dubé was homesick, it never showed on the ice. He finished 10th in South Saskatchewan Minor Hockey League scoring in 2012-13, helped the Hounds win the SSMHL title, and was taken 21st overall by the Rockets in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft.
He followed that up with a sixth-place finish in Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League scoring in 2013-14, and put himself on the Hockey Canada radar, earning an invite to Canada’s national under-17 development camp that summer.
Dubé missed the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge after being injured just before the start of the tournament, but he has been a Team Canada mainstay ever since, winning gold at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup and silver at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship on home ice in Montreal and Toronto.
Back again at the World Juniors, Dubé has a little bit of added responsibility this year, joining a list of Canadian captains that includes names like Fleury, Lindros, Upshall, Letang, Schwartz and Lazar.
But he’s not going at it alone. The Canadian roster includes six players who wear the ‘C’ with their club teams – Cal Foote (Kelowna), Brett Howden (Moose Jaw), Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia), Michael McLeod (Mississauga), Sam Steel (Regina) and Robert Thomas (London) – giving Dubé plenty of shoulders to lean on while still allowing him to play his game.
“That’s the biggest thing about being the captain – you can just keep doing your thing,” he says. “I can keep being me, because that’s why they picked me. I’m trying to do my best, but with Raddysh, McLeod, all those guys … all the returning guys are leaders and every single guy [is a leader] on their team.”
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and Dubé knows his POE career ends in Buffalo. And while the focus remains on adding a gold medal to his collection, he’s taking the time to soak in the experience a little more than he did in 2017.
“This year I’m enjoying it more,” he says. “Last year just flew by and it was a complete blur because I was just kind of shocked to make it. It was kind of just a whirlwind. Everything that was happening was crazy, and being in Canada was a little overwhelming for what I was used to playing at.
“This year I’ve settled in and just know what it’s all about. So I’m definitely just trying to enjoy it this year and make the most of out of. I know it’s the last time.”