Story by Jeff Gard/jgsportsmedia.com
It was a year ago this month that Graham Dickerson was waiting to step onto the ice to play his next Ontario Hockey League game for the Kitchener Rangers.
He’s still waiting.
That night, Dickerson and his teammates were kicking a soccer ball around near the dressing room as time for the pre-game warmup was approaching. The soccer continued as the players, starting to wonder what was happening, were kept off the ice prior to the scheduled March 13, 2020 game against the Soo Greyhounds.
OHL teams, including the Rangers, were learning of a possible shutdown and soon the players received the news they had to go home. Not just to their billet homes in the Kitchener area, but back to their hometowns.
“We were hoping we were going to return, but nothing happened and it’s been the same thing for the last 12 months it seems like,” says the 20-year-old Dickerson, now living in Cobourg, but who grew up in Port Hope.
“I really hope we do get to go back and play, but it’s kind of stressful and takes a lot out of you because you don’t know really what you’re training for. Are you training for next year or are you training for a couple games in the next month or two? It’s stressful, but I hope we get back.”
While Dickerson remains hopeful some of the 2020-21 OHL season can be salvaged, he tries to keep his mind off it. He’s working out, skating as much as possible, studying for his introduction to criminology course through Wilfrid Laurier University and playing video games when possible with his brother Drew and friends.
“Just try to stay the course and get better,” he said.
Dickerson will be ready when called back to the Rangers. He’s made it his mission to work harder than the next person ever since he was selected in the 14th round (272nd overall) of the 2017 OHL draft.
Having a productive minor midget season with the Quinte Red Devils, Dickerson was confident in being selected and believed he could play in the OHL. Being chosen late in the 15-round draft, though, didn’t put the odds in his favour, but he continued with the mindset that he had to outwork those players selected ahead of him.
“I just had to prove myself to the coaching staff and everyone else that just because I’m a 14th rounder doesn’t mean anything,” Dickerson said.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my parents,” he noted of Jody and Stacie Dickerson, “because they always fed me good confidence and information saying like ‘you can do it, you’ve just got to work harder than anyone else and don’t cheat, especially in workouts, don’t cheat any reps. You’ve got to do what other people aren’t willing to do.’ I give a lot of credit to them.”
Dickerson spent the 2017-18 season developing his game with his hometown junior C club, the Port Hope Panthers, which was a welcome change after the years travelling to play triple-A minor hockey for Clarington and Quinte. He learned from the veteran players, including fellow Port Hope resident Austin Veleke who had OHL experience, and produced 26 goals and 27 assists in 37 games as a 16-year-old rookie while playing with and against some players as old as 21.
“The year with the Panthers was one of my best years of hockey I think,” he said.
The following season, Dickerson joined the junior A Whitby Fury where he was reunited with former NHLer Rob Pearson who had coached him in minor hockey with Clarington.
He played just 17 games for the Fury before he was called up by Kitchener.
Dickerson points to the league’s annual Governor’s Showcase that year as a tournament. He notched two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist for the Fury while Rangers general manager, who is now also the head coach, Mike McKenzie was in the stands watching.
A week later, some Rangers representatives showed up in Whitby and told Dickerson he was heading to Kitchener.
“Growing up you’re watching the (Peterborough) Petes and the (Oshawa) Generals and now you’re finally going to be stepping on the ice in the OHL,” Dickerson said. “It was a dream come true.”
Dickerson has worked to adjust to the faster pace of play and says even if it’s cliche, he needs to get bigger, faster and stronger to take his game to the next level. His on-ice vision is another area of his game he’ll continue to work on.
“I see the ice pretty good, but with this tempo you’ve got to make decisions fast because you don’t have a lot of time out there,” he said.
While it’s unknown when things will return as much to normal as possible, Dickerson loves what he has experienced in Kitchener so far.
“It’s a hockey town, everywhere you go they know you,” he said. “The rink is sold out every night when you go play so you’ve got 7,000 fans cheering or booing. Just going to the rink every day is the best. The coaching staff is amazing.”
Dickerson also enjoys the team’s community involvement, including autograph sessions for fans and getting out to connect with youth.
“I love that part,” he said. “Going to the schools and reading books to the kids and interacting with them. Kitchener is great with that. You’re always out in the community doing stuff like that. It’s really good.”