Everyone loves to root for an underdog, someone who plays with a chip on their shoulder. That fire, looking to constantly prove people wrong, can become part of a player’s DNA. University of Denver teammates Dylan Gambrell and Blake Hillman have shared that fire on the ice for the past three seasons, both in Colorado and while the two were teammates with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
Just two years ago the duo represented the city of Dubuque as hometown players in the 2015 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Neither player picked up a point in the contest, but they both left another impression on NHL scouts. Heading into their freshman season at Denver, both Gambrell and Hillman were expected to reunite with former Dubuque Fighting Saints head coach Jim Montgomery. Both were hoping to make big impacts under Montgomery as freshmen, but they knew they’d have to earn it.
Along with overwhelming team success that culminated with a Frozen Four appearance, Gambrell finished third among NCAA freshman in scoring last season with 47 points in 41 games. The only other two freshmen to finish with more were 2015 NHL first round picks Kyle Connor (Youngstown Phantoms) and Brock Boeser (Waterloo Black Hawks). Meanwhile, Hillman displayed his steady defensive game with a +9 rating and an 11-point season.
Having already been passed in both the 2014 and 2015 NHL Drafts, both players headed into 2016 NHL Draft with quiet expectations. Whether they were selected or not, both had plans to jump back into offseason training the following week and would continue with a business as usual approach.
Fortunately for both, the third time was a charm. The San Jose Sharks selected Gambrell in the 2nd round, 60th overall, while the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Hillman in the 6th round, 173rd overall.
“It’s really cool,” Hillman said. “Knowing Dylan since day one that I was in Dubuque, I knew he was going to get drafted. I didn’t know If I was or not. I was really happy for him, and I’m really glad he went to San Jose. I’m sure he’s enjoying it, and I know he’s happy for me too.”
The NHL Draft allows North American players three years of draft eligibility. Most media and scouts focus on the first-year draft eligible players, those playing in their U18 seasons. Should a player be passed over three times, he can still sign with a NHL team as a free agent following his college career. Seeing players selected in their third year of eligibility has been a rarity in the past, but in recent years more scouts have found it favorable to put their stock in older players who have shown steps in development from the USHL to college hockey.
Both Gambrell and Hillman both took advantage of the extra time college hockey and USHL allows players to develop. They join organizations in San Jose and Chicago that have leaned on the USHL for finding their next crop of top prospects.
Gambrell noted while at San Jose Development Camp that he tries to model his game after Sharks captain Joe Pavelski (Waterloo Black Hawks). Pavelski was also passed over in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, and despite a big year in the USHL he was a seventh round pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. Gambrell also noted he plans on using being passed over twice as motivation to help him reach his ultimate goal, and says the key is continuing to work as hard as you can.
“Being passed over, you take that as motivation,” said Gambrell. “Whether you get drafted or not, you’re going to have to keep working to get where you want to be. Either way, you have to keep going. I think being picked this year was awesome just because me and (Blake) both have been chipping away and working at it. Finally, it paid off. But the hard work is just starting now.”
Hillman echoed that sentiment.
“Growing up, I never was a big name kid. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, a big hockey state,” said Hillman. “I wasn’t a big name player like some of the other guys were, but I just stuck to what I did best, kept working, listened to the right people and eventually I found my way. Hopefully I keep doing that and maybe find myself in the NHL one day.”
30 USHL players and 15 alumni were selected at the 2016 NHL Draft, making it the fourth straight season the league has seen 30 or more players selected. Gambrell thinks NHL organizations are going after more USHL players and alumni, and thinks that philosophy is helping teams find success in the draft.
“I think it’s happening more across the NHL,” said Gambrell. “It’s more common now. I think it’s great that they’re starting to look at us more because guys have more time to develop in college, get stronger, get bigger and play against bigger guys. I think it’s great.”
Just like Gambrell and Hillman, many talented players were passed over in the 2016 NHL Draft. Development occurs at different rates for players, and sometimes world-class athletes are passed over the first or second time around. Both players spoke about that topic and gave words of encouragement to those players who were not selected this year.
“I think you just have to keep working. It’s not the be-all and end-all,” said Gambrell. “It’s just one step in the process of any hockey career. Either way, if you get drafted or not, you’re going to have to keep working. Use it as motivation, and keep chipping away at it.”
Hillman gave similar advice. He wanted to remind players that they aren’t necessarily working towards the NHL Draft, but playing in the NHL one day.
“This is my third year of being draft eligible, and, to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to get drafted,” said Hillman. “All you have to do is keep working, especially on the little things in practice. That’s where you work on your skills and that’s where you’re going to excel. One of the big things I would focus on is just being as good as you can in practice because that leads into the games and further on down your career.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.