Some kids dream of becoming a professional athlete. Some kids live that dream — case in point, Dylan Reese.
The 31-year-old Upper St. Clair native is a 6-foot, 205-pound ice hockey defenseman for the Springfield Falcons (an AHL affiliate for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes).
“I had dreams of playing in the NHL as a young kid,” he said. “But I’d be lying if I told you that as a ninth- or 10th-grader I’d be thinking about actually making it to the NHL.”
Instead, Reese focused on fundamentals and let the journey ride — or skate.
“I spent a lot of time on skill work, spent a lot of time skating,” he said. “If you think about any sport, speed kills. If you can skate, you can play.”
Following high school, Reese played four years for Harvard University (Division I) and was named team captain and MVP during his senior year.
After graduating, Reese spent four seasons in the AHL. In 2009, he played his first NHL game for the New York Islanders. Since then, Reese has played a total of 78 games in the NHL for the Islanders, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Coyotes.
“I think anyone is capable of accomplishing what I accomplished,” he said. “In terms of athletic ability, I know I’m nothing special. I just kept working at it, and things kept getting better.”
Reese spent much of the past season rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon.
“I’ve only played 15 games,” he said. “I’ve had to deal with challenges I’ve never [experienced] before.
“A lot of guys, if they have this injury, it slows them down,” he continued. “They’re not the same player afterward. But I feel great, and I don’t notice any lingering effects. [It feels] good to be where I am.”
With the Falcons’ season coming to an end, Reese will soon determine the next stop on his hockey journey.
“I’ll wait until this season finishes and then I’ll sit down with my agent and family and see what’s out there. I obviously have to see what offers are there. For someone in my position, a lot of factors go into where I want to play. In Springfield, I’m one of the captains, a leader and a role model for some of the younger guys. I try to teach them the game and instill good habits in them. I have the option to keep doing that. Other guys in my shoes, in their early 30s, have the option to play in Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. Those are three good leagues.”
Playing abroad is appealing, maintained Reese.
“The lifestyle in Switzerland and Sweden supposedly is great, the money is good, and it’s a chance to play a professional sport in another country and have a great life experience,” he said.
If Reese chooses to play abroad next year, he will be building on a prior international foundation.
Following the 2012-13 season, which he spent in the Penguins’ organization, Reese signed with Amur Khabarovsk, a Russian team in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“I didn’t know what to expect going there,” he said. “[I had heard] horror stories and great stories. You never know what you’re going to get.”
What Reese got in Russia was cold.
“I went to a city way out east … [Khabarovsk] is the coldest city. It was literally negative 20 for like one month straight; I’m not kidding.”
And adding fuel to the fire — or ice to the frozen pond — Reese said that he spent little time speaking English.
“There was really no English spoken,” he said. “There was one other American and two Europeans; the four of us had a translator. It was a challenge learning how to get around by yourself, going to the grocery store. Ordering food at a restaurant was challenging.”
But even still, Reese enjoyed his Russian stay. “It was a great life experience; I got to see all of Russia,” he said. “The people treated me well; I never felt any hostilities about being an American. It’s a colder culture, not as many people are smiling, but overall I really enjoyed the experience. It was a chance to step away. You grow up quick and learn to live on your own.”
Reese even had some Jewish observations.
“I knew where the synagogue was,” he said. “I saw people wearing the Star of David. It didn’t seem like people were experiencing any anti-Semitism. Nobody seemed to be ashamed or hiding that they were Jewish. The team’s business manager was Jewish, and the team’s dentist was Jewish. People treated me well, but at the same time, I didn’t understand what anyone was saying.”
With the Falcons, Reese appreciates the experiences hockey has provided. For those aspiring to follow a similar journey, he said that skating and stick skills are most important.
“Really, it’s practicing those things,” he said. “Growing up, all I tried to do was work hard. My parents instilled in me that if you want to have success, you work hard.
“I worked my way through the system; I was never a highly touted prospect,” he added. “I always did what was asked of me. I worked hard, and good things came of that.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.