Dylan Strome’s head is down and he’s sitting by himself at the end of the visitor’s bench while this crowd of some 6,000 sings along to “Sweet Caroline” — “bop, bop, bah!” Strome wants no part of it. Seconds ago, the Erie Otters captain and his teammates assembled on the ice for a group hug. They said they loved each other, that they’d always be brothers and champions, and then they hurried to their dressing room. All but Strome, that is, who was asked to stay, and so here he is, staring at the floor. At the other end of the rink, the Windsor Spitfires yell and hug and throw things like you do when you’ve just won the biggest game of your life.
Strome’s name is announced, so No. 19 stands up, steps onto the ice and skates to centre to accept the Mastercard Memorial Cup MVP trophy. He poses dutifully for pictures, still wearing his white helmet, his patchily bearded face showing no trace of a smile. Strome carries the hardware back to the bench at waist level and passes it off to the first person he sees so she can take it away. Then he walks down the hall to join his teammates.
Hours before the final game of his junior career, one of the most prolific players in OHL history said he didn’t want to reflect on four years in the league just yet, because he’d get too emotional. There was very little reflection post-game, either — and for that same reason. Strome’s run ended with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss in the Memorial Cup final, with the NHL’s third-overall pick in 2015 dropping to his knees and staring at the ice, then the ceiling. It has been a week since that day, and Strome’s final memory as an Otter is still awfully fresh, but he is now entering the most important summer of his life. The 20-year-old started last season with the Arizona Coyotes, and was then quickly shipped back to Erie, prompting questions about whether he’ll be a star at the next level, like some in his draft class already are. After a season that was part dream, part nightmare, Strome says he has just one plan for the summer: “I’ll do whatever the Coyotes tell me to do.”
It’s the morning of Memorial Cup championship Sunday and Strome is all smiles, wearing brown dress shoes, navy blue slacks and a tucked-in black golf shirt. A backwards Otters mesh-back ball cap covers the brown hair he bleached along with his teammates. He’s sitting in an ice-level room at the WFCU Centre, and he grins and shakes his head thinking back to what he’s been through this season. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to be here,” he says of this fourth campaign with the Otters. “When you’re trying to make the NHL, it’s one of the last places that you want to be.”
Strome won the OHL scoring title in 2014–15 with 129 points in 68 games, then became the first Otter in history with back-to-back 100-plus-point campaigns. Following the 2015–16 season, he added more than 10 pounds of muscle to his now six-foot-three, 198-pound frame. By all accounts he had a strong training camp with a young Coyotes team, but what followed was a rollercoaster: Strome was sent back to Erie, then the NHL club called him up to start the season, then made him a healthy scratch for the opener. Strome made his NHL debut in Ottawa three nights later in front of a crowd that included his parents, aunt and uncle, and his billet family from Erie, who made the seven-hour drive. “I remember getting off the ice after my first shift and the guys on the team were like: ‘That’s one. You got it over with, you’re done — let’s go.’ That was cool,” Strome says, smiling. “I’ll never forget that.”
The middle of three talented hockey brothers from Mississauga, Ont. — the oldest, Ryan, plays for the Islanders, and the youngest, Matthew, will be drafted to an NHL club later this month — Strome didn’t grow up dreaming of his first NHL game. All the six-year-old with the Toronto Maple Leafs pajamas and hats and mini sticks and t-shirts thought about back then were those big Game 7s and winning the Stanley Cup.
In his NHL debut, the centreman logged 14:13 of ice time and on his third shift he recorded his first NHL point, an assist, after he fired the puck on net from the high slot and teammate Tobias Rieder jumped on the rebound. That puck is now in the Strome family basement. “It was 1-0 at the time,” Strome says. “Hopefully I can have more moments like that.”
Despite getting his first point out of the way early, Strome’s introductory taste of the NHL was filled with uncertainty. He stood on out the ice, but not consistently, as he adjusted to the pace. And he was a healthy scratch 10 times in the 17 games he spent with Arizona, including a string of four straight nights in November before his seventh and final NHL game to date. That was a 3-2 overtime loss against Vancouver in which he took two shots, bringing his career total to six. A healthy scratch again a night later, Strome packed his bags for Erie the next day. “There are times when you have no idea where you’re gonna be, you can go to the rink and five hours later you’ll be in junior hockey,” he says. “You’re always just hoping you see your name on the board, and to get in the lineup. Once you’re in there, you hear rumblings, and all of a sudden it’s like that” — Strome snaps his fingers — “and you’re back in junior.”
Coyotes assistant GM Steve Sullivan says the club was hoping Strome would stick this season, but ideally you don’t put a guy known for lighting the lamp on a checking line, and with the top six forwards Arizona had, going back to Erie was the best bet for his development. “His game maybe wasn’t quite ready yet, but we didn’t think it was far off,” Sullivan says. At the time Strome was reassigned, Coyotes GM John Chayka called Strome’s future in the NHL “very bright.”
It sure didn’t feel that way to Strome. The first phone call he made after he found out he’d been reassigned was to his dad, Chris, because it’s Chris who calms him down, while his mom, Trish, always tells him he thinks too much. Chris knew it was big news because the call came early in the morning. His instruction for his son was simple: “There are two ways you can go about it: You can go back and be angry and try to be above the team, or you can continue something you never finished.”
In other words, Strome could set his sights on world junior gold, an OHL title and the Memorial Cup.
Even if it felt like a consolation prize, Strome shifted focus. After a disappointing quarter-final exit with Team Canada at the world junior tournament a year earlier in Finland, he welcomed a chance to have a bigger role as a 19-year-old. “I wanted to get another shot at it,” he says.
Last December, he was named team captain, and Canada made it back to the final. In seven games, Strome recorded a team-high 10 points — only three players in the tournament had more. But he also suffered one of the most crushing defeats of his career — the only one that rivals the Memorial Cup final — in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Americans. After the game, he choked back tears when he told reporters the Canadians had given it all they had. “A disappointing finish,” Strome says now. “I learned a lot; having a lot of pressure on yourself and the country, how much they care about it.”
After the tournament, his focus shifted again, back to the Otters. He wanted to lead this team that had put together three straight 50-win seasons to a record fourth, and a first-ever OHL title. “We wanted to capture what we haven’t captured before, territory where we’ve never been,” Strome says.
The OHL’s leading scorer, Alex DeBrincat, says the Otters wouldn’t have won the OHL title or advanced to the Memorial Cup final without their captain. Otters defender Darren Raddysh points out Strome’s vision, and also says “he’s probably got one of the best shots I’ve seen.” Carolina prospect Warren Foegele calls it “a privilege” to have been on Strome’s wing.
In Erie’s second-round series against the defending Memorial Cup-champion London Knights, Strome had a flu so bad he was a game-time decision for the first three contests. He ate only a blue popsicle and an Oreo milkshake before Game 2 because nothing else would stay down. He puked during Game 3. He also recorded a pair of assists in a win, but if you ask Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch, Strome didn’t play like himself until Games 6 and 7. By Round 3 against Owen Sound, though, he was all the way back. “I thought he played his best hockey that I’ve seen him play for a series,” Knoblauch says.
Strome had four goals and four assists in those six contests, and though his points per game against the Attack registered below his regular-season average of 2.14, Knoblauch says he’s never seen better defensive play out of his captain, who was back-checking, forcing turnovers and laying down hits so linemates could jump on loose pucks.
That’s an area the Coyotes hoped would develop for a player who’s never had trouble getting on the scoresheet. “Extremely happy with the [defensive] progress,” Sullivan says. The team was in constant communication with Strome, and coach Dave Tippett keyed in on areas he felt needed improvement. “The defensive area, being a 200-foot player, playing with some pace, helping up on the forecheck,” Sullivan says. “He definitely hit those marks.”
What Strome still needs to work on in order to excel in the NHL hasn’t changed much from last season: his strength and skating. Those are really the only knocks on him now, even if he’s stronger and faster than he was a year ago.
Mark Seidel, the chief scout with North American Independent Central Scouting, believes Strome could use a season in the AHL to continue to improve his skating. “If you look back at his career, he’s had trouble when he’s had to play against mobile defencemen,” Seidel says. “We’ve seen it at the world juniors at times, we’ve seen it at times in Erie. If the opposition has a mobile defence, he struggles a little bit.”
With Arizona, Strome will have the benefit of working with one of the best skating instructors in the business in Dawn Braid, who has sped up a slew of NHLers, including John Tavares. “It’s not like he’s got a deficiency in his stride, it’s just a matter of power,” Sullivan says. “He’s got elite sense and hockey IQ and skills. If he can put in a real good summer, have a good program, that’s going to be beneficial for him [as] he gets stronger in that big frame of his. We’re looking forward to having a big season from him.”
Strome, of course, is looking forward to the same. He’ll spend the summer living at his childhood home and his dad says it probably won’t feel much different around the house this off-season compared to the last few in terms of Strome’s workload — shooting pucks in the backyard, hitting the gym, skating, and hopefully squeezing in some golf. “I would imagine that he will be working a little bit harder — if that’s even possible,” Chris says.
The seven NHL games he has under his belt have given Strome a better grasp on what he needs to do to stick as a Coyote. “I’ve been there, I kind of know what it takes to play at the NHL level, and I have to find a way to manage that for 82 games,” he says.
The last couple of drafts have produced mega-stars, and it couldn’t have been easy for Strome to watch players his age having an instant impact while he was sent back to toil away in major-junior. He tries not to read about himself, but finds it’s not easy. During his stint with the Coyotes, Strome says he wasn’t able to feel comfortable on the ice, in part because he didn’t feel like he was going to be with the team long. “Once you’re comfortable out there and you’re safe and you know you’re gonna be up there for a while, there’s no outside distractions,” he says.
“People can talk,” he adds, shrugging. “I’m pretty sure John Chayka and Dave Tippet don’t read those kinds of things. Who really cares what other people think besides people that really matter?”
It’s a mature approach for a player who says his biggest improvement this year — a season of monster highs and lows — was taking steps toward better controlling his emotions. He’s learned how to win on big stages. He’s learned how to lose on them, too. “I’m a pretty emotional guy, I get fired up easily,” Strome says. “I try to stay relaxed. I try not to yell at the refs, stuff like that, try not to get too mad at myself or anyone else.
“When you’re playing in such high-stakes games, you’re probably gonna be a guy that’s looked upon by your teammates.”
The goal next season is to be that guy — the player he’s been his whole career, really — but this time, in the Glendale desert.
Depth of Field: The best photos in sports from May 2017
Every month, Sportsnet brings you the best sports photos from around the world. In the May 2017 edition, we’ve got missing teeth, a Champagne shower and much more.