WINNIPEG — What are the chances of a hockey-mad town of just under 10,000 people producing two NHL players that suit up on the same team, let alone skate on the same defence pairing?
To say the odds were stacked against that happening is a wild understatement, but on Thursday night, the folks of Hermantown, Minn., were glued to the television and other viewing devices as Dylan Samberg made his NHL debut for the Winnipeg Jets alongside Neal Pionk against the Detroit Red Wings.
Bruce Plante coached hockey for nearly five decades in Hermantown — including a 28-year tenure with the Hermantown Hawks high school program that both Samberg and Pionk played for — and was among those bursting with pride.
“I watched the game at home and boy, Dylan did really well in his first time on and that was awesome to see. He just seemed to handle everything so well,” Plante said in a telephone interview on Sunday morning. “Being a pair, that was pretty unique for little Hermantown. Those are two guys that our youth kids really look up to a lot. They watch them and they know about them because they watched them in high school.
“To get them to do this on the big stage is pretty special for everybody in Hermantown. There was a lot of talk about it and a lot of texting going on. It was a very cool event for the hockey community. We’re proud of those guys who go on and play (in the NHL). We’re happy for them. They were such great leaders at Hermantown.”
As Plante explains, the passion for the sport in the community is generated from a pure place.
“It basically all starts on the outdoor rinks,” Plante said. “We have four outdoor rinks next to our arena and the kids play on there non-stop, from four years old through high school. The high school kids still go out there after practice.
“It starts there and then, of course, all the little kids line up in a row and watch the high school games. That’s a big deal to them and that’s where the culture really starts.”
With eight players (including four defencemen) landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, Samberg not only jumped in the lineup but found himself on the Jets’ second pairing with Pionk — a guy he’s trained regularly with and was quite familiar with.
Samberg was thrilled to be able to share the experience with Pionk.
He had a firm appreciation of what the moment was like for the people in Hermantown — and felt the support.
“It’s great,” Samberg said. “The chances of that are obviously really rare and to come from a small town like Hermantown, it’s a great community, everyone’s always pushing for each other. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of people reach out back home and get all that loving and caring for me. So, that was awesome.”
Pionk also recognized the significance.
“Really special,” Pionk said. “To have two kids, we grew up probably 10 minutes from each other, went to a high school of only about 600 kids together and obviously played for the same youth program, same high school program and same college program. And to be not only playing together but to be paired together in an NHL game, it was pretty special. I’m sure the whole town watched on Thursday night.”
Pionk and Samberg followed similar paths in suiting up for Hermantown High and then eventually playing three seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, though Pionk spent two more full seasons playing in the USHL before enrolling in college.
There was one other key difference in their respective journeys.
Pionk was an undrafted free agent who eventually signed with the New York Rangers after his third college season, while Samberg was a second-round pick (43rd overall) of the Jets in the 2017 NHL Draft.
“I thought that was pretty cool that he was (on a pairing) with Neal and I’m hoping to find a picture of those two on the blue line together, so we can maybe get it up in the rink somewhere,” UMD Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin, who coached both players, said on Sunday. “For Dylan, in his first game, he probably felt a little more comfortable too because of their relationship.”
Although he played a clean game against the Red Wings, Samberg’s ability to turn the page quickly is something that will serve him well as he continues along his development path and works his way toward becoming an NHL regular.
“He’s not one that dwells on a lot of mistakes either, he just moves on,” said Sandelin, who spoke with Samberg the night before the game.
Samberg made a strong first impression on Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry and that translated into nearly 18 minutes of ice time, including almost four minutes on the penalty kill.
“I thought he played solid. He played to his identity. He played to his strengths,” Lowry said. “He’s a real good defender, he gets up the ice, he skates well. He was able to close the gap, he was able to move the puck and make real good short plays. When you bring a player in and it’s his first National Hockey League game and he’s killing penalties, it shows you the belief we have in the player and his ability.”
When Samberg gets his next chance to showcase his talent remains to be seen, as Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola have all been cleared to play.
No matter when the next NHL game comes, you get the sense Samberg will be prepared to embrace the moment.
That’s another big part of his identity — and it’s something you can’t really teach.
“He’s definitely a winner — he’s always won all the way up — in PeeWee, Bantam, High School and college,” Plante said. “He’s in that category. He can play really well in big moments. He’s got that great poise and he’s comfortable in those situations. You never had to worry about him being ready.
“I’ve never seen him rattled. He’s certainly got an edge to him. Nobody messes with him. He’ll take on anybody if he has to. He’s a competitor and he’s got deep-rooted competition in his soul.”