Dylan Di Perna is heading east for the next chapter in his hockey career.
The 21-year-old, Woodbridge, Ontario native skated in his final Ontario Hockey League season in 2016-17, capping off a five-year major junior campaign which began in Kingston in 2012-13 and finished after three-and-a-half years in Kitchener. But for every player, his junior hockey career inevitably comes to an end and the ever-important question soon presents itself; “What’s next for me?”
For every player the answer is different. For some, they pursue professional hockey opportunities in the East Coast, American or National Hockey Leagues. Others combine a chance to travel with the ability to continue playing the game they love with semi-professional and professional leagues overseas. Some make their peace with saying goodbye to the days of playing high-level hockey, instead deciding it’s time to pursue schooling and full-time employment.
Di Perna’s decision came with relative ease. Like many other OHL grads before him he knew he wanted to continue playing hockey at a competitive pace, but he also wanted to prepare himself for the future by diving into post-secondary studies.
“Essentially, when my time was up with the Rangers I wanted to have as many open doors as possible,” said Di Perna on his decision to pursue university athletics, specifically under the U Sports umbrella. U Sports represents 56 Canadian universities and more than 12,000 student athletes competing for national dominance in their respective sports. U Sports encompasses the four major bodies of university sport in Canada; Atlantic University Sport (AUS), Ontario University Athletics (OUA), Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ), and the Canada West Universities Athletic Association.
Di Perna did more than just earn the reputation of being a no-nonsense defenceman with an intimidating scowl and offensive upside during his time in the OHL; he also earned five years worth of tuition, books and compulsory fees to put towards his post-secondary education for each season he played, thanks to the financial commitment the Ontario Hockey League makes to its players.
“I think the Ontario Hockey League’s educational package is a wonderful thing for all players,” Di Perna said, “even more so for players that seem to be late bloomers, like myself. Most guys graduating from junior hockey might want to be professional [hockey players], but the truth is they aren’t ready. University hockey gives you the chance to continue playing at a very competitive level, but in the meantime also provides the opportunity to improve your game and achieve your academic aspirations.”
As of last season the OHL saw 315 graduates actively attending 57 different academic institutions, including not only universities but colleges, trade schools and technical schools. Any hockey parent can attest that the game is an expensive one, but so is the pursuit of an education. For those players who want to do both it can present an obvious struggle, especially to those families with low to medium incomes. Di Perna acknowledges that there are certainly players that, without the scholarship package, may not have the ability to pursue their education, or may do so at the cost of severe future debt.
“After looking into my school package I knew it would be disappointing to let free education go to waste,” he said. “You look at all the students that have to pay their own way through school by working part time jobs and taking on student loans. Sometimes it’s the parents who foot the bill out of their own pocket when they might not even be in a position where they can, but they’ll sacrifice for their child.
“I’m very fortunate that won’t be a burden on my family and I because of the education package I earned during my time in the OHL.”
The decision made to capitalize on free tuition was an easy one. Next up was the decision on where to pursue those studies. After interviews with multiple schools, it was Saint Mary’s University that eventually won over the defenceman.
Saint Mary’s, or ‘SMU’ as it is commonly known and referred to (not pronounced as each individual letter, but instead as a three-letter, one-syllable, single word) is a school of nearly 6,500 students nestled comfortably into the South End of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Inglis Street, South Street and Spring Garden Road are all within walking distance and connect students to the heart of Halifax; the beautiful waterfront connecting land and the Atlantic Ocean.
“The reason I chose SMU was because I felt it was a perfect fit for me to be as productive as possible over the next four to five years with school, hockey and my personal growth,” offered Di Perna. “It will also provide me with the chance to experience a beautiful part of Canada.”
Di Perna doesn’t yet know exactly what he’s in for with all the endearing, east coast perks – lobster, salt water air, and those Maritime accents – but Trevor Stienburg knows exactly what he’s getting when the 6’2″, 199lb rearguard finally suits up for the maroon and white – and he can’t wait.
‘Stieny’, as he is known to those in the hockey world, is the head coach of the Saint Mary’s Huskies men’s hockey program, and has been since 1997. Stienburg’s ability to bring the best out in his players has been evidenced by the fact he is a four-time AUS Coach of the Year and three-time CIS Coach of the Year. He was twice named head coach of Team Canada at the World University Games, earning silver and gold medals. Under his tutelage the Saint Mary’s Huskies claimed their first CIS national championship in 2010, were 2012-13 CIS silver medalists, and bronze medalists in 2015-16.
He expects a high-level of hard work and resiliency from his student athletes, and Di Perna’s game has him chomping at the bit.
“We want to ice a team that is fast, disciplined, but hard to play against,” Stienburg stated. “I think Dylan can help in all areas. He is good on both sides of the puck and very eager to learn.”
Stienburg mentioned that the Huskies staff were well aware of the type of game Di Perna played throughout his time in the OHL, but what really captivated them was his attitude, approach and poise.
“When we met, Dylan was so polite. He asked all the right questions that a mature young man making a huge decision in his life should ask,” Stienburg said. “His maturity was obvious, as was his gratefulness and positivity towards the people around him who have supported him, from his Kitchener Rangers family to his own family and friends.
“I was obviously excited,” said Stienburg of being told Saint Mary’s would be Di Perna’s chosen destination. “The more time I spent with him, the more I hoped he would agree to join our program. When we got word he would, we were thrilled.”
Di Perna will join other former OHL players such as Bradley Latour (Oshawa Generals/Windsor Spitfires), Hunter Garlent (Guelph Storm/Peterborough Petes) and Conor McGlynn (Kingston Frontenacs) in an attempt to help restore the success the program has seen recently, specifically in those 2010, 2013 and 2016 seasons. The Huskies are coming off a 15-14-1 season in 2016-17, falling to the UNB Varsity Reds in their Subway AUS Championship semi-final series.
Although the primary focus of Stienburg and the Huskies is clearly bringing home another national championship, the on-ice development of the players while gaining a degree is a simultaneous goal for many.
“After talking to numerous people that have chosen Canadian university hockey as their next step, not one of them told me they felt they made the wrong decision,” said Di Perna. “But with that being said, make no mistake I am still pursuing hockey as a profession.”
“I like that Dylan wants to get an education,” said Stienburg, who was a first round draft pick, 15th overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, “but that he also hasn’t given up on playing professional hockey. As a coach you want to see your players achieve those goals.”
For those in Halifax who have yet to get to know Di Perna, they’ll soon learn not to misinterpret his silent demeanor as indifference. Astute and observant, he may come across as outwardly silent, but the voice in his head that drives him couldn’t be louder. His own biggest critic, he constantly challenges himself to meet and exceed new goals and is always looking to improve. His passion, work ethic and potential earned him a free agent invite to attend development camp with the New York Rangers prior to the 2016-17 season. Di Perna hopes it isn’t his only taste of the NHL, but is setting himself up for any pitch he sees.
“Absolutely an NHL contract would be fantastic, but you have to best prepare yourself for what may or may not happen in your future,” Di Perna stated.
“With or without a contract there is no guarantee you get to play in the NHL, but an education is something nobody can deny you of. It will follow you for the rest of your life.”