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VOL. 40 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 4, 2016

Nashville goalkeeper launches pro career close to home

By Dave Link

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Dylan Wells of Inglewood played high school hockey in Colorado before juniors in Canada and college in Providence and Utica.

-- Dave Link | The Ledger

Nashville native Dylan Wells traveled long and far during his days as a youth hockey and college goaltender.

There was high school hockey in Colorado, youth hockey in Canada, a year at Providence College, a year at Southern Maine and two years at Utica College.

So where does Wells start his pro career?

About 2 hours from home, with the Knoxville Ice Bears of the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Talk about a long and winding road.

“It’s surreal,” Wells said last Thursday. “It’s just crazy.”

Wells made his pro debut last weekend when the Ice Bears beat Huntsville 7-3 Friday at home and lost at Huntsville 5-2 Saturday.

Wells didn’t play in Friday’s game, but came off the bench in the first period of Saturday’s game and saved 23 of 25 shots.

It was a goal realized by Wells – drawing his first hockey paycheck.

“This has kind of been a lifelong dream of mine, to play pro hockey, and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for it, so I’m really hoping to seize this opportunity,” Wells says.

After graduating from Utica in the spring, Wells signed with the Watertown (N.Y.) Wolves of the Federal Hockey League, and the team was preparing to start their season last weekend.

Then he got a call from Ice Bears coach Mike Craigen, whose team was in the second weekend of its SPHL season and in need of a goaltender.

Wells agreed to a deal, packed his bags, drove all night from Watertown to Knoxville, and was at the Ice Bears’ Oct. 26 morning practice.

“I’d already packed away all my summer clothes while I was up North, so I’m wearing sweatshirts and sweatpants in 75-degree weather, but I love it,” Wells adds.

“The highway signs still say Nashville around here, and only a hop-skip from home, so it’s really exciting. I think my mom (Carolyn Breda) might even be able to see me get to dress as a professional hockey player, so that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Wells grew up in Nashville’s Inglewood area and attended Hume-Fogg Academy, but left home at the age of 17 to pursue his career as a goalie.

After attending William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs and helping it win a state title, Wells went to Canada and played for the Swan Valley Stampeders of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the Bonnyville Pontiacs in the Alberta Junior Hockey League before starting his college career at Providence in 2012-13.

Wells was a backup at Providence and didn’t see action.

“It was a great opportunity,” Wells says. “When I came as a freshman, (Providence) also brought in Jon Gillies, the Calgary Flames draft pick.

“He logged the minutes, and I wanted to go somewhere I could get some more minutes, get some more game time and develop, so unfortunately I felt compelled to leave. It was a great school. They treated me well, but I wanted to go somewhere I could play more.”

Wells transferred to Southern Maine the next year and played, then moved on to Utica College, where he started as a junior and was a backup last year.

While at Utica, Wells was a teammate of Trever Hertz, who’s in his second season with the Ice Bears after a rookie season (2014-15) with Fayetteville of the SPHL.

“It’s a great program there in Utica,” Craigen notes. “There’s a ton of Utica guys who have turned pro over the past several years, and I expect Dylan to be somewhere like those other guys.”

Craigen has known about Wells for a couple of years.

Wells played club hockey in the offseason, and during a summer-league game while playing for a Nashville team met Craigen, who’s in his seventh season as the Ice Bears’ coach and lives in Knoxville fulltime.

They had a couple of talks. Exchanged numbers.

“I’d just given him some advice along the way on career options, and turns out he’s looking to turn pro and we had a need in goal, and he couldn’t get here soon enough,” Craigen says.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a guy from this area who potentially could play for us.”

Knoxville’s Scott “Hot Sauce” Holtzman was on the Ice Bears’ roster for two games in the 2007-08 season, but never saw action. Holtzman became an XFC Lightweight champion and now fights on UFC’s main cards.

Wells, meanwhile, will compete for one of the two goalie spots on the Ice Bears’ roster. It’s stiff competition.

Knoxville’s No. 1 goalie, Brian Billett, is on injured reserved after being hurt playing a preseason game for the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators. He’s scheduled to come off injured reserve Nov. 9.

With Billett out, rookie Charles Grant of Dartmouth was in goal for Knoxville’s two wins against Roanoke in the SPHL’s opening weekend Oct. 21-22. Grant was called up by Rapid City of the ECHL, where he remained last weekend.

That left Wells and rookie Michael Doan of Northern Michigan as the Ice Bears’ two goalies last weekend. Doan played all of Friday’s game, but he was pulled in the first period Saturday after giving up three goals on 10 shots.

Wells hopes for another shot this weekend when the Ice Bears travel to the Evansville Thunderbolts and Mississippi RiverKings.

“I just try and go day by day,” Wells said. “In hockey and with goaltenders especially, it seems there’s a lot of fluctuation right now, and I know that Brian Billett’s had a lot of success here, so I’m just happy to have an opportunity to contribute while I can and do the best I can for this organization.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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