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Working on a dream

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Josiah Didier was a physical force in college. He’s committed to playing a similar game in the pros.

Fresh off wrapping up his four-year NCAA career at the University of Denver, the Littleton, CO native was signed to a professional try out contract by the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs on March 31, joining Sylvain Lefebvre’s contingent in their bid to secure a playoff spot in a tight Western Conference race. It’s a transition Didier has been preparing himself for ever since the Canadiens selected him 97th overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota.

“Playing college hockey, you really see that difference in your maturity level as you go from being a freshman to a senior. One thing that really helped is that you play against men at such a young age. It really makes you have to adapt and mature quickly against guys that are bigger and stronger than you. You have to get stronger right away if you want to compete with them,” offered Didier, a 6’3, 220-pound rearguard, who amassed four goals, 29 points and 203 penalty minutes in 148 career games with the Pioneers. “That will certainly help me as I move on in the future playing against older guys, too. The speed and everything else at the pro level is a lot different. My time at Denver helped me adjust and get ready for this. It’s an exciting time right now.”

Denver bench boss Jim Montgomery would certainly agree with that assessment. The former NHLer, who coached Didier since taking over the program in 2013-14, insists the 22-year-old is well-equipped to get his pro career off to a solid start.

“What Hamilton is getting is an incredible young man who thinks team all the time. He’s a big body, shut-down type defenseman who will protect teammates, physically intimidate opponents, likes the big hits and also has the ability to skate well and defend well enough to shut down top players in the American Hockey League. That’s what he did for us,” explained Montgomery, a Montreal native, whose NHL career included stints with the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars. “But, there’s no question that he’s ready physically and mentally to compete at the AHL level. I think it will be a seamless move for Josiah. His game has really grown in confidence being that shut-down guy. He’s got good lateral movement. He understands how to use his skating ability. He understands how to join the attack and he never puts himself in compromising situations. He was also our top penalty-kill defenseman, too. That’s the advantage of going to college. You come out ready for that next step.”

Didier admits, however, that leaving his home state at this point in time really was somewhat bittersweet. Suiting up for the Pioneers was a dream come true for the former USHLer, who grew up just 30 minutes away from the largest private university in the Rocky Mountain region. And, just days before being inked by the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, Didier & Co. secured the Denver hockey program’s first NCAA Tournament victory since 2011, advancing to the Elite Eight with a win over Boston College.

“It was the best four years of my life up to this point. I was very fortunate for the opportunity I got to play there. It was in my backyard. It’s where I wanted to play growing up. Just being around a great group of guys and the institution, getting a great [business administration] degree and being able to play hockey at the same time was pretty special,” mentioned Didier, whose squad fell to Providence College in the NCAA East Regional Final on March 29, dashing Denver’s national title hopes in the process. “Our goal this season as seniors was to win an NCAA game because we hadn’t in a while. We were able to do that this year and kind of set the stepping stone for the future of Pioneer hockey. The fact that we won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) title last year and an NCAA game this year sets up our program really nicely for the next group of guys. It leaves a good legacy behind.”

It was also the best learning experience Didier could have asked for. The Pioneers’ No. 4 made the most of his time with the seven-time NCAA champions, honing every conceivable aspect of his game for this particular opportunity.

“Physically, I’m a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I was as a freshman. I think I’ve put on maybe 30 pounds of muscle over the last four years. I just want to bring a physical presence in the AHL right now. That’s my game, being tough on guys and making them cough up pucks. I want to be able to transition the game to the forwards, move the puck quick, and go down to the other end of the ice and maybe score some goals along the way,” confided Didier, who led the Pioneers with 58 penalty minutes and 75 blocked shots in 40 games during the 2014-15 regular season campaign, in addition to serving as one of the team’s alternate captains. “Ultimately, I just want to stick to my game, do whatever it takes in the D zone and shut guys down. I don’t want to be a player that I’m not. Hopefully, I can show management what I can do.”

Based on what Montgomery has seen Didier do over the last two seasons, there’s no reason to believe the American defender won’t achieve that objective.

“His Junior year, I remember we had lost a game at Nebraska-Omaha where I thought we didn’t play a great team game. We got intimidated a little bit. The next night, after the opening faceoff, one of their guys tried to come across our blue line and Josiah just absolutely crushed the guy. It was nice to see him take that upon himself to set a tone. He understands momentum hits and momentum shifts. I think that over anything is what people will love out of him, that love for intensity and that physicality of his game. If he’s going to get to the NHL, it’s going to be because of that,” praised Montgomery, who admits losing Didier, in addition to six other seniors at season’s end, leaves a significant void in the Denver locker room.

“We’re going to miss Josiah a lot on the ice, but even more so in the dressing room, in the weight room and in practice. He really set a tone for professionalism and being hard to go against,” added Montgomery, who was also forced to part with Hobey Baker finalist, Joey LaLeggia, a talented rearguard in his own right. “Josiah’s dedication is going to be missed a lot. Players really looked up to him. He would do anything for anyone. Knowing the culture general manager Marc Bergevin and everyone working under him is trying to build, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the type of individual that they want.”

Now, it’s simply up to Didier to continue learning from experience and and ultimately deliver the goods.

“I’ve been working for this my whole life. It’s going to get even harder. I know that. I’m going to work especially hard over the summer. I’ve got a great strength coach at Denver that I’ll go back and train with. He’ll help prepare me for whatever the immediate future has in store,” concluded Dider. “It was hard ending my college career, but at the same time it’s opening so many doors. I feel great right now. I’m really confident in my abilities and I’m ready to show everyone that I can play at the next level.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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