Just before going to sleep at night and as soon as he woke up in the morning, Noah Dobson could cast his eyes on one of the more beautifully bizarre settings a teenaged hockey player can see. A few steps from his double bed with the bright-yellow frame, a glass sliding door revealed a view that reminded him he was far, far away from his home on Prince Edward Island. Mountains rose in the distance. The wintery landscape in front of them was interrupted by the stone walls and towers of an 11th-century castle, and beneath his third-floor dorm room were two heated soccer pitches. No, Dobson wasn’t in Canada anymore; he was half a world away.
Now a star prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft, Dobson took a calculated chance the year before he joined the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan. He left a country where hockey reigns supreme for a place where it’s much lower in the pecking order. Dobson lived in Salzburg, Austria for the 2015–16 season after being recruited to join Red Bull Akademie, a hockey and soccer development program then in its second year as a hothouse for promising 14-to-20-year-olds from around the world. It meant moving five time zones away from his family when he was just 15, but it helped get him to where he is today. “I take a lot of pride in where I’m from. It’s where I fell in love with the game,” Dobson says. “[But] as you get older, you have to make sacrifices to help your career and move away from home and get off the Island a bit.”
Dobson has since returned to the Maritimes, suiting up for the Titan — a team in a community that’s near and dear to his family’s heart. With the Titan, he’s improved the skills he developed overseas and helped the team capture 2018 QMJHL and Mastercard Memorial Cup titles.
Now 18, Dobson is a six-foot-three, 178-pound, all-around defenceman. A right-handed shot, he’s a projected top-10 NHL pick and may be the first Canadian chosen. He’ll also be the highest-drafted born-and-raised Islander if he’s nabbed by the 12th selection. (Blueliner Brandon Gormley was picked 13th by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2010.)
Dobson’s odd hockey odyssey has featured many hills and valleys, “but there’s been more peaks,” his father, Andrew, says. “The stuff that he’s had in the last two or three years is almost like a dream. You’re just waiting for someone to pinch you and wake you up.”
The year in Austria wasn’t the first time Dobson lived away from home to play hockey. The previous season, when he was a bantam, he moved to Sherbrooke, Que., and attended Bishop’s College on a scholarship. In Dobson’s eyes, it was the perfect setup. He was recruited by the director of admissions, Greg McConnell, a fellow Islander, and went from practising two or three times a week to being on the ice every day. And, he received a top-notch education while playing against promising teens from other private schools in Ontario, New Hampshire and Vermont.
It was a chance for him to branch out from a tight-knit hockey community and get a better understanding of where he stacked up among his peer group. “I think most players from the Island are like that,” Dobson says. “Once you get out, you kinda realize: Whoa. Wow. There’s a lot of good players out there.”
Dobson always knew he was one of the better players back home in Summerside. And that’s saying something. Although born and raised in Canada’s smallest province, it’s not like he was competing with and against a bunch of slouches. His neighbourhood alone featured three future QMJHL players, including Jeremy McKenna, who’d become his Red Bull teammate and is now a winger for the Moncton Wildcats.
Whether it was ball hockey or on the ice, the local games were ultra-competitive. That’s a trait Dobson’s father instilled in him from the time he first picked up a mini stick in the family basement. Andrew was a high-school goaltender in his day and he wasn’t about to give his oldest boy any freebies. “The rule I always had with my kid was I would never let him win on purpose,” he says. “He had to earn it. Sometimes, he’d go up bawling his head off. He was so determined to win.”
That competitiveness shone through on the ice. Andrew first put Noah on skates when he was four. He was then enrolled in organized hockey ahead of schedule after Andrew received permission from Hockey PEI. Dobson had talent and was mature for his age — “He definitely gets that from his mother,” Andrew jokes — but was also eager to improve. He wasn’t a natural skater, but he got better over time and his shot was getting past his father on the outdoor rinks with regularity by the time he was in novice.
Dobson usually played against older kids. In atom, he made a travelling spring team that was funded by former New York Islander John Tonelli. The team flew to tournaments in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Chicago. Dobson started catching the eyes of scouts and recruiters. “That’s when my light switch flipped on,” Andrews says. “I figured he may have a good opportunity at hockey.”
Dobson garnered plenty of attention at Bishop’s, but late in the season he and his family were still in the unenviable position of not knowing where he’d go next. Sure, there were options. The most prominent put forth by his agent, Andrew Maloney, was moving to Toronto to join the Don Mills Flyers, but concerns existed about each one.
Unbeknownst to the Dobsons, Red Bull scout Paul Henry had seen Noah play in Prince George, B.C., during the Canada Games in February 2015. The under-age defenceman left a mark on the former NHL bird dog and 1994 Olympic team architect. A meeting was arranged with Andrew when Henry was back on the Island in the spring. That’s when Henry delivered his sales pitch: Send Noah to a burgeoning academy in the hockey not-so-hotbed of Salzburg.
Andrew and Jenny, Noah’s mom, had their worries. Could they really send their 15-year-old son to Austria just to play hockey? What would happen if he got hurt? What about his schooling? Their fears were quickly put to rest. Charlottetown native Chris McQuaid, cousin of Boston Bruins defenceman Adam McQuaid, had been invited to attend the academy and made the trip over to check it out, returning with a glowing review.
Former NHLer Brian Savage — who played for Henry on the 1994 team — was also part of the recruiting process. Henry wanted Savage’s son, Ryan, to play for Red Bull and then convinced Savage and his family to make the move so he could be part of the program. Savage and his wife, Debbie, provided a home away from home for the North Americans on the team, having them over for weekly dinners, taking them to medical appointments and chaperoning ski trips. Savage, given the roles of assistant coach and travel coordinator, secured full scholarships from hockey-loving Red Bull beverage co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz — costs he estimates would have run for $60,000 per player. Ex-NHL coach Pierre Pagé was the academy’s director. “Brian, Pierre and Paul made it such a smooth transition for us,” Andrew says. “We felt very confident we’d be taken care of.”
With his parents’ backing, Dobson committed in principle to a year with Red Bull’s under-18 team. The commitment was contingent on a visit to the academy to see the facilities. He and Andrew were provided with return flights to and from Salzburg. There were no strings attached. Don’t like it? Head on back home, no questions asked.
Dobson only used the one ticket. He was blown away by what was offered: the two Olympic-sized rinks, the skate treadmills, the rapid-shot stations, the all-organic cafeteria menu, a schedule that included tournaments in eight countries across Europe and North America. “It was a hockey player’s dream,” Dobson says. “It was like Disneyland for a hockey player.”
Dobson roomed with Kynan Berger, a Maritimer who shared the same agent. Every day they were at the academy they would have a one-hour practice at 9:30 a.m., go to school until 1 p.m., work out from 2 to 3, go back on the ice until 4:30, have dinner at 5 and then relax for the evening. Streaming TV was the most common nighttime activity, with Berger preferring Game of Thrones and Dobson opting for Suits. Despite the busy schedule, Dobson often found time for extra reps. “He was a really hard worker. He would usually go to the shooting gallery a little more than I — or the other guys — would,” Berger says, laughing.
Despite the time honing his shot, it was another facet of his game that improved the most. Dobson often asked Savage to run him through drills to work on his skating whenever there was downtime. With the added benefit of the larger Olympic sheet, Dobson believes his stride went from average to a strength. Case in point, he tested as the best backwards skater with and without the puck over 30 metres at the CHL Top Prospects Game in January. “I knew the game’s changing quite a bit in terms of the style of defencemen they want in junior and obviously in professional leagues. They want mobile defencemen that can move the puck with some skill and who can play defensively,” Andrew says. “I just felt that being over there would give him the opportunity to work on that part of the game – the skill aspect of it.”
Red Bull under-18 assistant Teemu Levijoki coached many of Finland’s top players — including Leo Komarov, Mikael Granlund and 2017 first-round picks Miro Heiskanen (Dallas) and Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville) — as kids. He felt Dobson had just as much potential based on his vision and composure on the ice. “I saw him [for the first time] and I could already say he was going to be drafted in the first round,” Levijoki says of Dobson’s future NHL Draft outlook.
That much was particularly evident during a Red Bull game, which had been scheduled against the Czech team, HC Ceske Budejovice. A miscommunication saw the Budejovice men’s team turn up instead of the junior program. The overmatched under-18 squad was crushed 10-0, but Dobson stood out. “It was like a 16-year-old getting in an NHL exhibition game. He was the only guy who sparkled and showed how truly special he was,” Henry says. “He didn’t know the meaning of the word pressure. He was so calm and so cool.”
Dobson was among those promoted to the under-20 team a couple times that season. In a league based on skill and skating rather than physical play, Dobson didn’t miss a beat. “It was a big sign he was going to be a big player,” Levijoki says.
Adds J.D. Forrest, the under-20 coach and now an assistant with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: “There were some things you could see that were advanced. Just because the guys are older doesn’t mean they’re smarter. He was just a smarter hockey player than a lot of the guys on the ice.”
The 2016 QMJHL draft was the big payday for Dobson after his season in Austria. It was held in Charlottetown, the closest Q market to his hometown of Summerside and the only team based on P.E.I. “There was real tension in the air until his name got called,” Andrew says.
The wait wasn’t long, and the result was one they had hoped for. The Titan selected Dobson sixth overall, providing him with a chance to play in Bathurst, N.B., where his parents had grown up and met. Dobson chose to wear No. 53 as a tribute to his late grandfather, David LeBlanc, who died at that age in May 2004, seven years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Jenny’s father was an avid golfer and sports fan. “His grandfather would be very proud that he picked that number,” says Dobson’s grandmother, Betty Ann LeBlanc. “At first, I didn’t realize that he was taking that number. When I did, the tears came down.”
After living with a billet family in his rookie season, Dobson moved in with his paternal grandparents, Kenny and Marina, last fall. His only request is his regular game-day meals — a salad with chicken for lunch and a 3 p.m. plate of white rice, carrots and a chicken breast. Otherwise, he’s easygoing. All three grandparents attend every game in town.
On the ice, Dobson has rewarded the Titan for their decision to draft him despite limited viewings during his season abroad. GM Sylvain Couturier and head scout Andre Levesque only saw at one tournament and an end-of-season showcase event. “As a scout, you have to buy talent. You have to buy quality,” Levesque says. “The thing that hit me right away was his first pass. His breakout is already unbelievable at this age. That’s very rare.”
After a month of being eased into the lineup, Dobson was given more responsibility by coach Mario Pouliot. He saw the toughest defensive matchups as a rookie and still finished the season with a plus-34 rating. “He just came in there and he knew what he could do and he proved it,” says Berger, Dobson’s teammate last season with the Titan. Dobson was also eager to turn perceived weaknesses into strengths. That shot he’d worked on in Austria wasn’t cutting the mustard early in his QMJHL career. So, he shot dozens of pucks after each practice — Couturier estimates 300 an outing — to get harder and more accurate.
Dobson’s seven goals and 26 points in 63 games were solid, but not spectacular. But Couturier had such steadfast belief in his offensive abilities he dealt away veteran Felix Boivin to give Dobson some time on the power play. Dobson responded with 17 goals — including 11 with the man advantage — and 69 points in 67 games. He finished second in league scoring among defencemen in part because he upped his shot total to 276 from 82. He then chipped in 13 points in the Titan’s QMJHL playoff run and added seven more at the Memorial Cup. “The last one I saw here in Bathurst that I was sure was gonna be a successful player was Patrice Bergeron,” Couturier says. “I’m as confident in Noah as I was with Patrice Bergeron.”
Fresh off being named to the Memorial Cup all-star team, Dobson should be one of the most coveted players at the 2018 draft. He’ll look even better after he adds some muscle. “Whoever drafts him is gonna get a guy who can pile up minutes and can play against top lines and run your power play,” Couturier says. “That’s what he’s doing at our level. But in five or six years, he’ll do that at the next level as well.”
His star has been steadily rising since last August when he made Canada’s under-18 Ivan Hlinka team and assumed a shut-down role in a gold-medal effort. “I was really happy with the way I ended my 16-year-old year,” he says. “After seeing those players at that tournament, I felt like I belonged.”
Dobson’s ability to contribute at both ends of the ice doesn’t surprise Henry. Although he now mostly works as a sports psychologist, Henry still scouts his share of games; he compares Dobson to Cale Makar, the Canadian world junior defenceman picked fourth by Colorado last June. “Whoever gets him is getting a No. 1 NHL defenceman to me,” Henry says. “There’s no question in my mind about this guy.”
Without Henry and Savage convincing his father to give Austria a chance, Dobson’s journey to the draft would have been much different. And without that strange bedroom view, his career outlook may not have been the same as it is today. “I know that year made him a stronger person,” Savage says.
Dobson got to see the world and improve his skills while playing against much older players. He says his experiences at Red Bull left him ready for Bathurst — his home away from home. “It’s not really the normal path the average person takes,” he says. “I was fortunate to have the opportunities that I’ve had come up and see the places I’ve seen.”
All that’s left now is to see where he goes next.
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