Even though Predators defenseman Greg de Vries has been playing hockey for more than three decades now, he still remembers when and where he laced up the skates for the first time.
“I grew up and played in a small town called Sundridge, Ontario,” de Vries said. “The local IGA grocery store was our sponsor so my first team was called the ‘Sundridge IGA Novice Team.’ It’s been about 30 years now so it’s hard to remember, but I was about four years old. I played a number of years, then the first real competitive hockey I played was at the triple-A level in North Bay, Ont.”
Ironically, de Vries says his best memories from his younger days come not from the games during tournaments, but the times spent goofing around in the arenas and hotel rooms while off the ice.
“There were a lot of fun memories at those tournaments. In Canada we all played mini-sticks,” the36-year-old said of the popular game also known as knee hockey. “Between games we would be in the corner of the arena playing with a tennis ball. I have fond memories of all the stuff that goes along with travel hockey – being with my family, staying in hotels with the equipment hung up in the rooms stinking them up and the parents in the next room having a party while we’re trying to sleep.”
From there, de Vries took a rather unconventional path to the NHL. While he started going through the minor hockey ranks and eventually reached the major junior level like most players, he took a slight detour that others do not usually take – college.
“I played in North Bay for a number of years then played Junior B for a couple years, went to college for a year, played Junior A for two years then started my pro career.”
de Vries played his first of two Junior B seasons with the Aurora Eagles of the Ontario Hockey Association before skating for the Stratford Cullitons, a perennial powerhouse in Tier II hockey.
Following his second season of Junior B hockey, de Vries ventured to college to a mid-size campus in northwest Ohio.
“College was a great time,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience. I went to Bowling Green State University for a year and had a fantastic time. I was a little immature at the time, but it turned out alright.”
For many other players, they make the jump up to the professional ranks after their playing days in college. That was not the case for de Vries. Upon leaving Bowling Green, he went back to Canada to play in the Ontario Hockey League before going pro.
“Juniors was also a lot of fun,” de Vries said. “I played in Niagara Falls and got to play with a lot of great guys. It was a great experience.”
After his last year in juniors, de Vries broke into the National Hockey League when he signed with the Edmonton Oilers as an undrafted free agent. Through all his travels in minors and juniors, it was not until he made it with Oilers that he took his first step onto NHL ice – or attended an NHL game for that matter.
“Being from where I’m from – three or four hours north of Toronto, I never went an NHL game before. So the first time I had ever been on NHL ice would have probably been when I played my first game in Dallas,” he said of his first game, played Jan. 17, 1996 in Reunion Arena in Dallas.
Having never been to an NHL game growing up, it is no wonder that de Vries is the only person in his family to play hockey.
“I always tell everybody I would say I get my athletic ability from my father because he’s a great athlete but he’s never worn ice skates in his life. He was born in New Jersey and moved to Canada later. Actually, to this day, he’s never had skates on. I’m a generation behind my teammates so that’s the reason why I don’t skate as well as them.”
How would a young boy with a father who has never worn ice skates in his life become a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman in the NHL? The answer seems pretty simple.
“I got into it simply by trying it out. That’s what we do in Canada – we play hockey.”