Before becoming a household name at the National Hockey League level, Seattle Kraken defenseman Vince Dunn travelled through a challenging journey, which most young aspiring hockey players can use for their own.
The Peterborough, Ontario native still looks back fondly on his three successful seasons as a member of the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs and those people who helped get him to where he is today, now as a 7.3-million dollar defenseman in the NHL.
Humble beginnings through junior ranks
The now six foot, two hundred pound, left shot defenseman didn't have the easiest start to his junior hockey career, being drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 OHL Priority Selection (109th overall) by Niagara IceDogs. Dunn played the 2012-13 season as a member of the Thorold Blackhawks in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League before grinding away for his opportunity in the OHL with the IceDogs just up the road during the 2013-14 season.
Dunn's former head coach with Niagara, and now Barrie Colts General Manager/Head Coach Marty Williamson spoke about wanting to convert Vince to a forward when he first got to training camp.
"When Vince first came to us, we thought about changing him to a winger," Williamson said jokingly as he reflected back on those times. "We were going to play him at forward but the Junior B guys said he was a very good defenseman so we ended up keeping him back there and we learned real quick that he was a heck of a defenseman."
Dunn spoke about what young players currently playing at the Junior B level can take from his story and use it as they try to further their hockey careers, despite taking jagged paths to get to their eventual long term goals.
"In most cases there's always someone watching you, whether it's a scholarship or a pro scout there's usually always someone keeping tabs or watching for someone else who could then notice you instead," said Dunn.
"I think for me I knew I had a lot of potential, I just didn't have the opportunity and all the tools in my game as of yet then to showcase myself. So with time, effort and a lot of hard work listening to coaches and getting coached very well in junior hockey," Dunn said sincerely. "My slow steps to development being in the juniors helped me keep growing more and more each year, I didn't find myself being held back. Wherever I was I was a dominant player and that helped with my confidence to pursue an NHL career," Dunn ended.
The now Seattle Kraken defenseman also spoke about his time reflecting on what that period of his life was like as a teenager who believed he was getting old before even turning pro. "I think it went by so fast and you actually think you're so old when you're playing there," Dunn laughed. "Now where I'm at in my pro career watching these young guys coming up from semi-pro leagues and playing at a high level it is kind of weird to see how young they are in retrospect, when I thought I was older back then."
After a 56-point campaign in 68 games (including 18 goals from the backend), Dunn was selected in the 2nd round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues with the 56th overall pick, before returning for his third OHL season where the talented blueliner amassed 43 points in a shortened 52-game season.
Fond memories of Niagara
Reflecting back on his time spent in Niagara with the IceDogs, Dunn talks about just how special of a group it was at that time, helping him become the player that he is today. Especially the tutelage of one Marty Williamson. "I had a tremendous group of players that I played with there, which definitely helped my development. Marty (Williamson) has been a close friend of mine and still communicate with him here and there to this day; he actually attended my Stanley Cup celebration after we won in St. Louis," Dunn said enthusiastically.
"Marty was really good for my development, he really believed in me, and I am really thankful for what he did to develop me like he did, but I also think David Bell was great for me too," Dunn made sure to say about his former Assistant Coach and now Head Coach of the AHL's Belleville Senators. "Both those coaches have seen a lot of professional hockey make their way through the junior ranks and also coached/played at professional levels, so Niagara was a great place for me to grow up as a young man and as as hockey player," Dunn added.
Dunn ended his Niagara reflection with a strong statement on behalf of many of his former teammates or players he's talked to who's hockey journey's had stops through the Niagara Region. "Anyone I ever played with there said some of the best years of their hockey careers were spent in Niagara," Dunn said passionately. "I'm very thankful that I was able to experience an OHL Championship run (losing in the 2016 finals to the London Knights) while playing against and with some top elite players, who helped me push myself to be even better."
The IceDogs captured the Bobby Orr Trophy as Eastern Conference Champions in 2016 with the group that Dunn and Williamson both referenced, as a special group of young men who came together and bought in for a common goal of championship aspirations. A team that will go down as one of the only two to reach the OHL Championship in the franchise's 16-year history in Niagara, along with the 2012 team who also fell to the London Knights.
IceDogs ties crossing paths
Being a proud alumnus of the Niagara IceDogs, Dunn talks about still crossing paths with teammates or other greats who dawned the IceDogs crest through his time in the NHL, which is a tight knit brotherhood to those who are still a part of it and for those who went on to achieve other successes in life.
"We still have a group chat that starts to get a few messages here and there so that's always fun to see what guys are up to and reconnecting with guys we played with. We were a very tight IceDogs group at that time and I think when you're a part of that IceDogs culture you are like a brotherhood." said Dunn. "Being with (Alex) Pietrangelo in St. Louis, we had some things to relate to during our times in Niagara, he was a great mentor for me there when I started in the NHL," Dunn said about fellow IceDogs grad and Stanley Cup winning teammate in Pietrangelo. On March 19, 2018, the defensive pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn became the first defensemen in St. Louis Blues history to record at least four points apiece in a game.
"It's cool to see where people's careers go, some guys are no longer playing hockey, some guys have made it to where they want to be, so it just gives so much opportunity to people not only in the hockey world but just regular day-to-day jobs with the scholarship packages," said Dunn about his teammates who went on to do great things in other walks of life. "Junior hockey and the OHL specifically are great for kids development on and off the ice."
Life in the National Hockey League
Now in his seventh full-time NHL season, Dunn looks back on those road trips in junior hockey and while he is thankful for the type of lifestyle that he gets to live in with regards to the NHL perks, he looks back at those bus trips in the OHL as some of the best bonding times for teammates and friends. "I think road trips were always fun no matter what level you play at. I had a lot of fun memories even in the AHL, now you see the type of luxury we have up here in the NHL so I'm very blessed and thankful to still be playing in the NHL, having it much easier in that sense," Dunn said humbly.
"Being fed all the time, unlimited resources at home, and on the road; it's funny to see the transitions from leagues and how they work differently. Those were fun times, the group of guys we had we were always doing stuff away from the rink, obviously that translated over to such a good culture on the ice," Dunn added about the strong culture it helps build for teams going through those experiences together.
The now 27-year-old Dunn also spoke to how special it is coming back to this area once a year having played in the Western Conference his entire NHL career, which means only one stop to Buffalo each season, only 30 minutes over the border from where he called home in Niagara for four years.
"This area is always special to me to come back to once a year. It was actually the last place that my grandfather got to watch me play live before he passed so it's always touching to be able to play here and remember him," Dunn said while beginning to feel a bit emotional. "Being so close to Niagara, meeting people who still support me all those years later and having easier access just a quick drive over the border for people to come watch me who can't make it up to Toronto or Ottawa. It's pretty crazy to see how quickly it's came to me and I'm very thankful for where I am right now personally and professionally," Dunn added.
High praise from a mentor
The aforementioned Marty Williamson, now the Head Coach and General Manager of the Barrie Colts, spent all three seasons with Dunn as Head Coach of the Niagara IceDogs but says their bond goes beyond their time in Niagara.
"When you mention his name it brings a smile to my face, Vince is a great example. I've been in this league a long time and he's one of those guys who worked extremely hard," said Williamson. "Vince just grew so much, I remember the 2016 OHL Championship series against London, we challenged him to try and shut down Mitch Marner. I feel he really got to understand the game with that assignment," Williamson added.
"Vince prided himself on being a good offensive defenseman but in that series I think he took a step forward in growing his all-around game and did a fantastic job. He kept Marner in check as well as anyone possibly could at that time given that he was such an explosive junior hockey player, Williamson said emphatically. "I think it really started to round out his game so he could be successful at the pro level, with the offensive piece, but also has become a very solid defenseman in in own end."
Williamson went on to say that players like Dunn are one's you love to coach and why he enjoys coming to the rink every single day to help them grow, which is why he still uses him as a success story with his young players in Barrie to this day. "They key is hard work. Vince was a hard worker, he would stay out there shooting the puck after practice. He had a great spirit but when it came to being on the ice and during games he was a tough competitive kid, so as a coach those are the guys you love to have," Williamson noted. "Vince had no problem putting in the work whenever it was needed to make himself a successful player."
"I've used Vince Dunn as an example to a lot of my younger defenseman in Barrie on how to round them out to be defenseman at the pro level, at the highest level," Williamson said while reminiscing on their time together in Niagara. "It's one of the reasons why I have the best job in the world. I'm very fortunate to work with hard working, talented young men. To be able to sit back and watch guys on television like Dunn, Ryan Strome, Dougie Hamilton, and all those kinds of guys, it's very special to me as a small part in their journey's as successful NHL hockey players," said Williamson, who wanted no credit or recognition for their successes.
Williamson ended off by saying that it is fun to stay in contact with those guys over the years and even attend some of their biggest achievements, like he did by attending Dunn's Stanley Cup celebration after the 2018-19 season. "I've been able to keep in touch with a big group of that team. It was a tight group and we had a lot of fun here at the old Jack Gatecliff and now here at the Meridian Centre. It brings a smile to my face to this day," Williamson said reflectively. "My son and I stay up late to watch the Seattle Kraken games for Vince and I'm just so proud of how hard he has worked and what he's earned in his NHL career so far."
With great power comes great responsibility
Dave Hakstol came to the Seattle Kraken as the expansion team's first head coach in franchise history for the 2021-22 season, beginning the same new journey with his soon to be highest paid defenseman in Dunn. Hakstol spoke about what Vince has meant to the growth of the franchise and rounding out into their top defenseman in year three since coming over from St. Louis in the NHL expansion draft.
"Vince continues to grow and that's a maturation process as more responsibility has come his way. He has been able to take that one, he's excelled in that role and we're going to see the growth in his game for years to come," said Hakstol.
Hakstol also spoke about Dunn's best attributes which translated to a career high 64 points in 82 games last season. "He's competitive and he has a good brain. You need those things in order to defend in this league and equally or more importantly to be able to get your team out of the zone and Vince can do that," Hakstol noted. "He's got a very good sense of what's around him, what's available to him."
"Whether it's a 100-foot stretch pass getting us out of the zone or it's just a little pop play that puts one of his teammates in a position of strength, he has very good strength in those areas of the game," Hakstol said in closing, haven the Kraken to an appearance in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs during the 2022-23 season, only their second season as an NHL franchise.
Dunn finished by saying that despite not having the easiest road to being a top pair defenseman in the National Hockey League, his journey is something that's helped shape him into the player that he is today with hard work, dedication to his craft, creating lasting bonds with teammates (past or present) and being open minded to strong mentorship from those coaches who have helped develop him into a household name.
"It hasn't been the smoothest or easiest ride, I've worked really hard to get to where I am and obviously had a lot of help and opportunity given to me over these years but I've always tried to take advantage of my time away from the rink and learning the game, while also putting my best foot forward every single day to make the most of it," concluded Dunn; a proud alumnus of the Niagara IceDogs, as one of the franchises' best success stories.