The Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior League are having a remarkable year. A record-breaking season, in fact, with 52 wins versus just four regulation losses. The Saints boast the league’s goaltender of the year in Travis Rolheiser, coach of the year in Steve Hamilton and rookie of the year in Dillon Simpson.
Simpson, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound puckmoving defenseman, put up 41 points in 58 games for the Saints and recently announced his intentions to attend the University of North Dakota next season to play with the Fighting Sioux.
“After going to the school, meeting the coaches and players, it just felt right,” said Simpson, who always knew he was a college boy. “I told all the Western League teams during my draft year that I was going NCAA.”
Simpson has fast-tracked through high school so he could get to the Sioux for next season, making him a rare 17-year-old freshman when he gets to Grand Forks in the fall. But based on his pedigree, the kid is ready for the jump.
“We’ve got a great collection of talent,” Hamilton said. “We have a lot of depth at every position and Dillon’s a significant piece, on and off the ice.”
The coach noted that Simpson displayed maturity beyond his years this season and thanks to that, the rookie was given more responsibility.
“He manages the play,” Hamilton noted. “He moves the puck, he’s poised, he’s confident…he’s an every-situation guy.”
Simpson knows what his strengths are, but is also aware there is still work to do.
“I’m a two-way defenseman,” said the blueliner, who counts Nicklas Lidstrom as a role model. “I take care of my own end and can help out on offense. I’m not the best skater, but I think I make up for it with my vision and smarts.”
Off the ice, Hamilton describes his rookie defender as easy-going with a great personality and if anyone knows Simpson, it’s the coach.
“He’s an unbelievable kid and we actually have some history together,” Hamilton said. “I taught him in school, Grade 7 math and science.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise Simpson has quickly become an elite young player; he does come from NHL genes, after all. The defenseman’s father is Craig Simpson, who won two Stanley Cups with Edmonton and now works as a broadcaster.
In a sport where guys will chirp opponents at any given chance, it’s a little surprising the younger Simpson was largely immune to remarks about his dad, who also won CBC’s “Battle of the Blades” figure skating competition recently.
“It’s funny,” Simpson said. “I didn’t hear it all year, but as soon as I committed to North Dakota, I started to hear the dad chirps.”
But no amount of chirping will throw Simpson and the Saints off their goal this season: using a first-round bye in the payoffs to their advantage and taking an AJHL title and perhaps even an RBC Cup after that. With the personnel the coach has at his disposal, Hamilton is confident.
“There isn’t a style of play we can’t match,” he said. “Physical game, finesse game, we can play it.”
Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every second Thursday throughout the season.
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