Former Orchard Lake St. Mary’s hockey standout Dan Milan, 19, is living a dream as he has signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League (NHL). Milan recently participated in the Lightning’s training camp and had a chance to practice with some of the best players in the game, including Steve Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The Lightning’s general manager and vice president also happens to be Milan’s idol, Steve Yzerman. A former All-State selection at St. Mary’s, Milan is now entering his second season as a defenseman for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was the team’s rookie of the year last season as he scored 14 goals, a team record for a defenseman, and finished with 38 points. He is currently working towards his goal of making the Lightning roster next season. Milan spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about life in New Brunswick, playing alongside the NHL pros and how St. Mary’s prepared him for his journey.
SCN: You recently signed a three-year, two-way contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Please tell us how this deal came about and its terms. What has it been like for you participating in the Lightning’s training camp thus far and how have the players been treating you?
DM: I was fortunate enough to get invited by (Steve) Yzerman to rookie camp and I went there and I sat out the first game because people that were invitees, we rotated games. When I got my chance to play, I played two games in the rookie camp and I just played well, played my game, kept it simple and I was fortunate enough to make it to the main camp, in which I was the only invitee that made it to main camp.
Being on the ice with (Steve) Stamkos and (Martin) St. Louis was pretty surreal, but I tried not to do anything special. I just tried to keep it simple and I ended up playing well in the main camp, so Yzerman extended my days and I was fortunate enough to stay the next week, which was the start of all the exhibition games. They tried to get me into an exhibition game, but I played well in practice and I practiced with all the guys.
I was fortunate enough to not get drafted. Most people want to get drafted, but it’s actually a good thing I didn’t get drafted because they would have had my rights for three years and I think they saw something that they liked, obviously, and it worked out perfectly that I ended up getting a contract out of the whole thing.
(Tampa Bay) is a world-class organization. All the guys there are great guys and they make you feel comfortable right away because you have to have that if you’re going to be a special team — everybody has to be comfortable and like each other and I think that’s what those guys are all about.
I didn’t have a chance to talk to a lot of the big boys, but I talked to (Pavel) Kubina, who was my (defense) partner in some of the scrimmages, and Victor Hedman was one of my (defense) partners, as well. Those guys are great guys and after every shift I was like, “Good job, buddy,” so it’s pretty easy to get comfortable right away and I got more comfortable as the days went on.
SCN: Like many in Michigan, I’m sure you grew up watching Steve Yzerman. What is it like for you to now know that he is technically your boss?
DM: It’s pretty crazy because I had a Steve Yzerman jersey growing up and I had a couple autographed pucks by him and a poster on my wall.
It’s like a dream come true. You can’t really put into words how it feels. This is just one more step to take. The next step obviously would be to play in the NHL and that’s really what I want to work towards. It’s great having a contract and all and working for Steve Yzerman, but now I have to try to work my way to eventually play for him in his organization.
SCN: You are regarded as the first player from Michigan high school hockey to make the jump directly to a major junior hockey league team as you play for the Moncton Wildcats. How did you come to the decision to go straight to juniors instead of going to a college and playing for a university team? What do you think have been the advantages to you making the jump and what do you think have been the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome with that leap?
DM: Growing up by the Plymouth Whalers, which is only about a half-hour from my house, I was always thinking about it. I always thought it was the cool route to go and it was the faster to the NHL. I was being told growing up my whole life that I want to go play in college, that’s what I thought I was going to do, especially after I wasn’t drafted in my first eligible year. I was thinking of going to the Windsor Spitfires if I was drafted, but since I wasn’t, I decided I was going to go to Des Moines and the Buccaneers of the (United States Hockey League) and I would keep my college eligibility and play in college after playing in Des Moines.
But, it’s strange. Someone I knew used to play for Danny Flynn out in Moncton and he needed a defenseman and asked if I would step in and play some minutes, and honestly, I just went to Moncton to check it out for about a week and I didn’t hear about this until about a week before their training camp, but it was kind of on short notice. So, I went there and I was still thinking I was going to Des Moines and everything was awesome in Moncton. It’s a world-class junior organization and they put a lot of players into pro hockey, especially defensemen. I couldn’t turn the offer down that they offered me and I was fortunate enough to get good minutes last year and a lot of experience and the coaches in Moncton are unbelievable. They helped prepare me for Tampa Bay’s camp.
The toughest obstacles … I’d say the schedule. You play an NHL season and it takes a toll on your body, you just have to make sure you’re staying in shape, staying healthy, and eating everything you can.
I think it really helps to prepare me for Tampa Bay’s training camp because it’s an NHL-style of play, major junior hockey, OHL, WHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — it’s like a mini-NHL because it’s an NHL style of play as opposed to college, which is more run and gun. That’s kind of what the USHL is.
My ultimate goal is to play in the NHL and what better way to do it than to go into major junior, which is going to help me prepare for the NHL, especially having great coaches. That’s helped my development, too, throughout this year.
SCN: What has it been like for you living and playing in New Brunswick so far away from home and your friends and family, and how did you adjust to life there? Tell us a bit about Moncton’s fanbase and what it’s like playing in front of them.
DM: It’s a little bit different just because it’s French-speaking and it’s out on the ocean. I’ve never lived even close to an ocean before, just the Great Lakes. I have a lot of buddies back home and my family, but you talk to them throughout the year and you miss them a lot. You know you’re doing what’s best and you know that you’re going to see them in the summertime and at Christmas time.
And a lot of my buddies are also hockey players and they’re also playing in juniors or in college somewhere. They’re all doing the same thing and we all keep in touch and play XBOX every once in awhile with each other and it’s not bad at all. It was pretty easy to get comfortable.
Moncton is a great hockey city just because the closest team is Montreal or Boston, so you’re the only team in town and we get a lot of fans every night and they’re great fans and they’re very supportive. I keep in touch with some of the fans that go to every game and they’re great people out in Moncton. I can’t say enough good things about them.
SCN: You were named Moncton’s Rookie of the Year after the 2010-11 season. How much did that honor mean to you? How did your time at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s playing for the Eaglets prepare you for where you are right now?
DM: I had a good year and everything has been so surreal the past couple years, how everything has happened so quickly. It’s definitely an honor. It’s definitely going to help your confidence but you just have to make sure that it doesn’t get to your head, doesn’t get you big-headed, because that’s when your game starts to go down, so I just try to stay down-to-earth. It’s definitely an honor to know that people think of me as the Rookie of the Year.
I’d say St. Mary’s as a school prepared me for moving on after high school and the rest of your life. My parents raised me well enough to be a good person and going to St. Mary’s, it preaches even more to you about being a good person, being a good Catholic. As far as hockey goes, you have a rink on campus and you get to skate everyday, even in the offseason. You can go out and mess around, play 3-on-3 with all your buddies and I think that really helped my development, getting those backyard skills.
The coaches at St. Mary’s, I can’t say enough about them. Brian Klanow, he was a big part of my development. The schedule that he set up, it was tough, and I think that was good playing the upper competition.
SCN: What is your status for the upcoming hockey season with Moncton? Could we possibly see you suiting up for the Lightning in the near future?
DM: I think we should have a good team this year. It’s early in the season. Who knows, we’ll find out by the end of the season, but we have a great group of guys and I can’t say enough good things about them. It’s fun in the locker room everyday. You look forward to practice. You look forward to going to work on your online courses and such at a classroom with all the boys. It’s fun everyday and it’s easy. That’s one of the big reasons why it was easy last year coming in because all the guys are great people and they helped me feel comfortable right away.
That’s one of things about major junior hockey that I was always worried about was that you’re playing but it takes away your college eligibility and schooling is a big part of my life and I have to get good grades because it’s going to help prepare me for after hockey and such. The coaches, Danny Flynn and Fabien Jones, they’re really big into education. You have to do well in education, because Danny knows that after hockey, you’re going to need that education for the rest of your life. He tells you that you either have to take a class or you have to get a job, but most guys are smart enough and they’ll take college courses — and why not, because it’s paid for by the team.
I hope (to play for the Lightning soon). That’s what I’m hoping for.