To many, Red Deer, Alta., has long been a rest stop along the journey. A place to fuel up.
In Matt Dumba’s case, it was a staging locale. There was so much more to Red Deer than Dumba thought when he was drafted in the 2009 Bantam Draft by the Western Hockey League’s Rebels.
“Being from Calgary, you never really go to Red Deer for any reason but to play hockey,” Dumba said. “I didn’t know the size of it — I thought it was just Gasoline Alley. You drive past, see the gas stations, then you’re out.
“Once I started playing there, went to high school there, lived in the Deer Park area… I really enjoyed the community. There are over 100,000 people.”
Red Deer — where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend — lies along Highway 2, the primary north-south corridor through the province. As such, it has become the traditional stop for travellers driving between Edmonton and Calgary.
“Gasoline Alley” lies right alongside the highway, a place to gas up, stop at an A&W, or duck into the Donut Mill for a bowl of chili and a Boston cream. But if that is a place to rest along the way, when Dumba arrived in Red Deer he was anything but a guy looking to put his feet up.
Even then, his passion and energy were second to none.
After a six-game, two-assist stint with the Rebels in the 2009–10 season, a 16-year-old Dumba blew up with 15 goals the following year to lead all Red Deer blueliners. Then, in 2011-12, he set career highs with 20 goals and 37 points in 65 games, growing significantly as a playmaker and paving the way for his eventual selection in the NHL Draft.
But there was so much more to Dumba’s time in Red Deer than hockey, and it started with billet mom Val Wisener, who has housed more than 20 Rebels players over the past 15 years.
“She can’t stop. She won’t stop,” said Dumba. “She’s awesome.”
Dumba, in his sixth year with the Minnesota Wild, was speaking just a few days after he’d sat down for dinner with his “billet sister” Cassandra and his billet teammate, Christian Stockl.
“I’ve been on this Red Deer train for the past couple of weeks, cooking up a lot of good stories from my time there,” he said, laughing.
It’s the billet experience that shapes the player as much as the on-ice experience in junior hockey. Some kids don’t engage with their billet family, and others get homesick. Part of moving on in hockey is the ability to make home be wherever you are at the moment, and the billet process can help immensely with it — if the player can buy in.
For their part, Dumba and the Wiseners just clicked.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Dumba, at the young age of 25, is already closing in on NHL game No. 370. He came from a high pedigree of defencemen who went first through fourth in that ’09 Bantam Draft.
Derrick Pouliot went first, followed by Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart and then Dumba. They grew up on various blue-lines together, and still find time for a nod when they line up across from each at a faceoff or a national anthem.
“Griff’s little brother, Sammy, I played with in World Championships. He’s my Reinhart connection,” said Dumba. “I see Morgan when we play the Leafs, Derrick when we play Vancouver (he is now St. Louis property). We’ve all been tethered together since U-17s, U-18’s, playing together for Canada. When we look back on it all, it’s kind of crazy how we’re so closely linked.”
And how closely a junior town is linked with an NHL star.
Hey, you’ve got to gas up somewhere, right?