BY KEVIN GIER
As the 2014-15 season is drawing to a close, the North American 3 Hockey League can take pride in a number of records set: teams (31), attendance (more than 213,000 people have come through the league’s turnstiles), even the first match played outdoors (an exhibition on New Year’s Day in Sheridan, WY between Cowboy State clubs Gillette and Yellowstone). But the most important marker set by this league isn’t wins, losses, goals or fans: it’s players that moved on to bigger and better things, and this year has seen this stat grow above all other.
Through February, 35 NA3HL skaters have either signed tender forms with Tier I or II junior teams or been tapped by sides in the Tier II North American Hockey League to play for a game, a weekend series or even the remainder of the season. Furthermore, even more players have skated with higher-level clubs during weekday practices, giving them both additional time to hone their skills and valuable exposure to coaches and scouts.
Two of the biggest success stories to emerge from this year’s crop of rising NA3HL stars have been Frankie Melton and Trent Dillinger. Melton, a 17-year-old from the southern St Louis suburb of Imperial, MO, was picked up this season by the St Louis Jr. Blues after starring in local hockey. After making himself known at the Tier III level by scoring 16 goals and 9 assists in only 20 games, Melton received a call from the Corpus Christi IceRays of the NAHL, who were hurting for players due to injuries and suspensions.
Making his South Texas debut on November 21 against Odessa, the 5’7”, 145 lb Melton announced his presence immediately: with his first shot on the Jackalopes goal, he beat goaltender Robin Johanssen and contributed to a 6-2 win. Melton eventually transferred full-time to Corpus Christi in December and has become a valued contributor with the IceRays, having scored 2 goals and marking 2 assists in 14 total games. Upon signing Melton to his club, Corpus Christi head coach John Becanic remarked that “[he] has been dominant to date in the NA3HL as a 17-year-old. It is typically a league that is dominated by older players, but Frankie has found a way to find the back of the net early and often.”
Melton isn’t the only “local boy done good” story to hit the NAHL this year, as the rise of Trent Dillinger has been a major story. Like Melton, Dillinger is 17 years of age and has also found success in the Lone Star State, notching 4 goals and 5 assists in 17 games played with the Amarillo Bulls. Unlike Melton, however, Dillinger is both bigger and smaller at once: he stands 6’2” and weighs 180 lbs, but he didn’t come from a team with the history of the Jr. Blues, five-times USA Hockey national champions and with a roll of honor that includes NHL talent like Joe Vitale (Arizona Coyotes), Paul Stastny (St Louis Blues), and 2013 Stanley Cup champion Brandon Bollig (currently with the Calgary Flames), but with a team playing their first season in the NA3HL.
Dillinger came from the Gillette Wild, one of the seven teams from Montana and Wyoming that were part of the America West Hockey League. In an effort to expand to all parts of the country, the NA3HL absorbed the AWHL this season and is continuing their expansion plans with the NA3EHL, a sister Tier III league that will begin play next season and run on the Eastern seaboard. Both the Wild and Gillette native Dillinger have taken well to their new surroundings: Dillinger marked 10 goals and 9 assists in 17 games played for his hometown club (an increase of 6 points from his numbers in the previous season) before his eventual call-up, and the Wild are currently in second in the new NA3HL Frontier Division composed of former AWHL teams.
Of Dillinger, his former head coach Tom Winkler noted that “we were extremely excited as an organization that Trent earned his call up to Amarillo. It was well deserved and it shows that there is a commitment from the NAHL teams to players in the NA3HL.”