Stephen Dhillon and Griffin Luce have a lot of memories of playing hockey in Western New York at a young age. Both grew up in the area and played on local travel teams on their way to becoming top NHL Draft-eligible prospects.
They had both skated on the ice at First Niagara Center before, but intermission skates during Buffalo Sabres games were nothing compared to what they experienced Thursday night. Playing in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, the two were immersed in a showcase featuring some of the top amateur talent in the country.
The game, in its fourth year, has seen 74 of its alumni selected in the NHL Draft, including 15 first-round picks. Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres prospect who was selected second-overall in June, is one of those 15. Eichel played in the game last year, picking up Most Valuable Player honors.
This year, Team Plante – coached by former Sabre Derek Plante – won 6-4 over Team Roenick – coached by former NHL All-Star and USA Hockey Hall of Famer Jeremy Roenick – thanks to a go-ahead power-play goal by defenseman Luke McInnis with 1:50 left in regulation.
WATCH: GAME HIGHLIGHTS
Dhillon and Luce skated for the losing squad, but the thrill of playing together was a welcome change since they played against each other a lot growing up. Luce remembers skating as a member of the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, and that Dhillon, a goaltender who was with the Buffalo Regals, would spark some controversial moments in those heated games.
“We always went at it with the Regals. I remember he always used to knock the post off,” Luce said. “It was funny because our coach would always get mad.”
When asked about it, Dhillon simply smiled.
“You get a little lucky sometimes,” he said.
Luce is the grandson of former Sabre Don Luce, who played 10 seasons for Buffalo from 1971-81. He’s committed to play at the University of Michigan. He expected before the game to have a few dozen members of his family and friends in attendance, including his grandparents. Luce said his grandfather and dad (who serves as the Director of Scouting with the Florida Panthers) have been instrumental in helping him pursue a career in hockey.
Dhillon, who entered the game early in the first period after starter Tyler Parson left with an injury, will suit up for the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League this season.
His favorite goalies growing up were Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller. He was able to act upon that fandom a few times when it came to meeting the former Sabres netminder.
“Miller was actually a neighbor,” Dhillon said. “He lived close to us and we’d go to his house and ask for autographs here and there. We’d seen him a couple times.”
‘IN DULUTH, NOBODY REALLY KNOWS ABOUT THE GOAL’
Derek Plante, the head coach of the team boasting his namesake, has a lot of good memories playing in Buffalo. He skated with the Sabres from 1993-99 and scored one of the biggest goals in team history – in overtime of Game 7 of the 1997 Quarterfinals against Ottawa.
Rick Jeanneret’s call of the big slap shot that beat Ron Tugnutt became instantly famous and Plante says the goal always comes up whenever he talks to Sabres fans.
“Everybody brings up the goal of course and it’s kind of funny because in [my hometown of] Duluth, nobody really knows about the goal because it wasn’t a big deal to them,” he said. “But it’s fun to come back here and reminisce because that was a great time for me personally.
“Everybody kind of dreams of scoring the Game 7 overtime winner and it actually happened. It’s hard for me to believe that and it’s a great memory for me and the teammates I played with.”
Plante has served as the head coach for the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament that past two years. He said he’s enjoyed working with USA Hockey and sees the All-American Prospects Game as another great outlet to put the next generation of American hockey stars on display.
“This is an event for them to expose and show what they can do on a big stage,” he said. “All the NHL teams will be here. It’s a good opportunity for them.”
ROENICK LIKES WHAT HE SEES IN BUFFALO
Roenick has been impressed by the host city, especially when it comes to the development of Canalside.
“I think it’s incredible. What Terry and Kim Pegula are doing here is exactly what’s needed and it’s bringing a whole new vitality to the city,” he said. “It’s just not even with the teams – with the Bills and the Sabres – but what [they’re] doing around the arenas and putting a lot of money into the developing and making people want to come down here.
“…Kim and Terry deserve a lot of credit for what they’re doing in this city right now. And I know that the fans are going to show a lot of appreciation to them.”
Luke Kunin opened the scoring just 27 seconds in, lifting a wrist shot over Evan Sarthou’s left shoulder.
Team Plante responded quickly with Max Jones tallying on a backhand shot 4:16 in. That scoring play came on the rush when Willie Knierman fed Jones with a backhand pass into the slot.
Thirty-eight seconds later, Parsons stopped a high shot from Trent Frederic and, after smothering the puck, had to leave the game with an apparent injury. Dhillon then entered the game and he ended up stopping 19 of 23 shots.
Then Tim Gettinger redirected a point shot from Michael Campoli to give Team Roenick the lead back 9:59 into the opening period.
It was a 2-2 game with 9:34 remaining in the second period thanks to a one-timer goal by Trent Frederic.
With 4:49 left in the middle frame, Logan Browne connected on another one-timer to give Team Plante its first lead of the game. But they gave it right back when Matthew Tkachuk, the son of former NHLer Keith, tallied on a second effort just 29 seconds later.
Team Roenick got a spark from that goal when Kunin potted his second of the night. He wristed a high shot glove side 10 seconds after Tkachuk’s goal to put his club ahead 4-3.
A third-period goal with 6:37 remaining by Jones knotted the game again. But with 1:50 to play, McInnis, whose father Marty played in the NHL, scored on the power play to give Team Plante a 5-4 victory. Kieffer Bellows, son of former NHLer Brian Bellows, added an empty netter to seal the deal.
MicInnis earned MVP honors.