By Andy Eide
It’s April and moments before a late season game between the San Jose Sharks and the Dallas Stars at the SAP Center in San Jose. Outside the home dressing room, Bonney Lake native Dylan Gambrell lines up with the Sharks just prior to hitting the ice. Out in the arena the lights are down, Metallica is blaring over the speakers, and a giant shark head is lowered to the ice.
The fans are hyped and so is Gambrell, who is about to make his NHL debut. Gambrell and his new teammates race out of the shark’s mouth and onto the ice, which is now accented by lights and smoke, to the roar of the crowd.
“That was pretty incredible,” Gambrell says of the moment. “Watching guys do that as you grow up and just hoping you can do that one day. My family was able to come down and watch my debut so that was pretty cool.”
He made his NHL debut a couple weeks after finishing his junior season at the University of Denver, where he had been a star. He was part of a Denver squad that won the NCAA Championship in 2017 and was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award in 2018. After a 17-goal, 47-point freshman season in 2016 he was picked by the Sharks in the second round of the NHL Draft. He signed his his entry-level contract with San Jose in March and joined the team to play three games down the stretch.
Gambrell got a taste of what the NHL game is like and how different it is from the NCAA version.
“Guys are bigger and stronger, they’re huge out there,” he says. “Obviously the pace is a lot quicker and one thing I noticed is that guys are really good with their sticks, really hard on the stick. They’re the most talented guys in the world.”
Getting into hockey thanks to his dad’s roller hockey background, Gambrell grew up playing locally for Kent Valley Hockey Association. As his game developed in Kent, he had a tough choice to make.
“I knew that if I wanted to continue to grow as a player, keep getting better, I’d have to eventually move away,” he says. “Either to Canada or for me, I wanted to go to college, so I had to move out closer to the Midwest. There’s more exposure for college.”
Gambrell and his family decided that he would leave. At just 14-years-old he packed his bags and went to play for the Colorado Thunderbirds, one of the top youth hockey programs in the country.
“That was hard,” he says of leaving home. “I remember the day I was leaving. My parents are crying and I had never seen my dad cry. It was a tough day, but it was totally worth it.”
This route has been one that many local players have taken, both before and after Gambrell. There are quality youth hockey associations in the Puget Sound area, but its still a niche sport and one that is desperate for more ice to play on.
“I think it’s just that players are so spread out,” Gambrell says of Northwest youth hockey. “The organizations are spread out as well. You could make a good team if you get all the players from around the state. So, I think it comes down to there being more opportunities for kids that want to play hockey. And then having the opportunity to be looked at after that. With the NHL team going there it would help out so much.”
After a strong season in Colorado, Gambrell had another decision to make.
He was invited to training camp with the Seattle Thunderbirds as a 16-year-old in the fall of 2012. Seattle knew that Gambrell was leaning towards college but tried to entice him by putting him on a line with Mathew Barzal, who was just 15 at the time. The two players complimented each other well and showed a strong chemistry while dominating many of the scrimmages they played in.
It wouldn’t be enough to convince Gambrell to sign however and Thunderbirds fans and coaches were left wondering ‘what if?’
“That was cool,” Gambrell says of the experience. “We had a good camp. That was a tough opportunity to pass up on for sure, being a home town kid and all that but I always kind of had my mind set on college.”
Instead of signing with Seattle, he would head to the United States Hockey League where he starred with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He played there until it was time to start school in Denver.
The college versus CHL-WHL choice is one that most North American hockey prospects are forced to decide on at a young age. Both paths lead to the NHL and in most cases, it comes down to a personal decision and fit.
Gambrell says his decision was made based on his belief that he needed to grow his game more while getting bigger and stronger. He felt that the college route was the best for him but also pointed out that his Colorado roommate, Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo, played in the WHL for the Tri-City Americans so it really does work out differently for different players.
For Gambrell, the NCAA route worked out perfectly.
“The best three years of my life by far,” he says of his time with the University of Denver. “You go to a school with so much tradition. The culture is great, the coaches are great, and you get such support from all the students. It couldn’t have gone any better for me, I lucked out.”
He ended his career at Denver by potting 43 goals and piling up 132 points in 120 games for the Pioneers.
That production led him to the SAP Center ice in April to play an NHL game against the Dallas Stars, against players he watched on television growing up. With his three-game stint in the books, Gambrell is spending some time back in Denver this summer to prepare for this coming fall’s training camp with the Sharks.
He knows no spot is guaranteed and continues to fine tune his game.
“I want to work on my shot and release,” he says. “I continue to work on that. Being hard in the corners, that’s where a lot of the game is now.”
Gambrell is a fan of Seattle sports and says the thought of some day playing an NHL game with the Sharks in Seattle gives him chills. It excites him because he knows what it will mean to the region.
“I couldn’t even imagine that,” he says. “That would be incredible, it would be awesome for youth hockey there. There would an explosion of hockey players coming out.”