California dreamin’ about an NHL future

Photo: Mark Nessia

📝 by Brandon Weiss | AHL On The Beat

Ask Michelle Wolf, and she’ll tell you this was the only way Dustin’s story was going to play out.

Since before he was born, her son was drawn to hockey, as uncomfortable as it was for his mom. She learned that lesson from the SAP Center, where she and Dustin’s dad, Mike, would watch the San Jose Sharks.

“When I was pregnant with him, he’d kick me every time we went to a Sharks game,” Michelle said about her now-20-year-old son, who has backstopped the Stockton Heat to the top of the Pacific Division standings. “From the moment the Sharks stepped on the ice until the time they went off, he’d just kick me the whole entire game.

“I swear, it’s just something that’s been in him since that time. Of course at the time, none of us knew anything about that.”

Few outside the family could’ve guessed a prized hockey prospect would emerge from Gilroy, Calif., a town of less than 60,000 nestled about 30 miles south of San Jose.

“There’s the garlic festival, that’s the biggest thing to go on there,” said Dustin Wolf about his home. “It’s pretty much just a lot of farm land. You have the occasional shopping center, but it’s mainly fields of dirt and farmers. It’s very much your old country town.”

Rooted and raised in California, Wolf’s journey started out of serendipity. One afternoon, after school, Michelle sprung the question that would change the trajectory of Dustin’s life. It was a random idea that was aimed, admittedly, at finding a way to let the rambunctious youngster let some steam out.

Fiercely competitive, high on energy, the thought seemed like a good fit. He’d been through gymnastics classes, but those didn’t do the job. It was an opportunity for him to break the rules, focus on flips while letting loose. It was time for a new strategy.

“Do you want to go try to skate?”

The first spin was a tandem adventure, Michelle helping Dustin take laps around a community ice rink about 25 minutes from home as part of the San Jose Sharks Learn to Skate program. From there, there was no stopping Dustin. He was racing around the rink by his second trip. He was lapping his peers in no time.

Before the Wolf family knew it, Dustin had skates and pads, a stick and an unshakable love for the game. No good deed goes unpunished, and the family had a price to pay ― mainly in the form of damage to the backyard and withstanding the rain as Dustin dragged them onto the patio to shoot around, rearranging the furniture and using soccer goals.

“Every time I’d shoot the puck, Mom would yell because I’d be hitting the wood and chipping it off the gazebo in the back,” said Dustin. “Later on down the line, I was probably 8 or 9, we had a large storage shed on the side of our house. My dad put in some synthetic ice and a net in there. That became my shooting gallery, and even as a goalie it was fun to just go out there and enjoy playing the game I love. There were a lot of fond memories over the years back there, for sure.”

What son remembers fondly, mom for the most part agrees, but recalls the shed and its accompanying puck-passer causing some anxiety. Dustin’s goalie coach would stay at the family house when he was in town, and Michelle recalls one night hearing the terrifying words: “Let’s see how fast it can go!”

“They cranked it up and I started hearing pucks just rattling all the metal in the shed,” she recalled from the safety of the inside of the house. “I’m just glad nobody got killed in that one.”

Wolf went through the Santa Clara Blackhawks mites program at Sharks Ice, and then when Dustin was 9 the family headed south to join the Los Angeles Junior Kings. A young Evgeni Nabokov, as he saw himself, he wasn’t going to be denied.

“Back at the start, you were just a kid out there having fun,” Wolf said. “Then we moved south. My family, they had to make a ton of sacrifices. I spent six or seven years with the Junior Kings. We lived in a couple different places, and the prices down there are pretty insane. I’m not sure how my parents managed to pull that off. My dad was still working up in northern California, every weekend he’d make the five-hour trek down to L.A. He’d get in late Friday night, spend the weekend and would leave at 3 or 4 in the morning on Monday.

“That just goes to show how much my parents put into wanting me to have everything, and it’s pretty remarkable.”

Mike and Michelle eventually followed Dustin across state lines and moved to Everett, Wash., when he joined the Western Hockey League’s Silvertips, racking up hardware as he continued to excel on the ice. They knew hockey was his passion, what he’d worked on his whole life. They saw first-hand the hours, the fierce competitiveness he had in him (a character trait that extends beyond the hockey rink, as far as puzzles, where Michelle says he made a habit of hiding the last puzzle piece so he could put it in). They gave so much of themselves to help Dustin chase his dream, it was only right that they accompanied him to the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.

It was a far cry from the start of his youth hockey days, when Michelle remembers a coach trying to force a different reality on the young skaters. In front of parents, Michelle remembers, the coach wanted to set expectations, and set them rather low.

“He actually stood in front and said, ‘Let’s get something straight, none of your kids will ever make the NHL.’ I was managing the team, and I thought if he had the kids in here, we might’ve come to blows,” she said with a chuckle ― but with the sincerity of a parent who’s always believed. “Let the parents and kids decide this for themselves. Dustin wasn’t there, and he wouldn’t have listened to it anyway.”

The first day of the draft, as Michelle remembers, it was all about supporting Dustin’s teammates and familiar foes. They didn’t expect the 6-foot goalie to go that high. Day two, surely, would be the day.

But as the draft wore on, and name after name after name got called, doubt ― for the first time ― started to creep in for Michelle, whose son had defied the odds up to that point every step of the way, overcoming his smaller stature and the roots that were planted in ground that had not yielded hockey players before.

Was it all for naught?

“We had the excitement at first, but then we just starting thinking, ‘What the heck is going on?’,” she remembered. “The other goalies who were taken, the numbers weren’t there. Teams must’ve been looking strictly at size. I was ready to scream at people. It was hard to see everybody else going ahead of him, but it played out the way it was meant to. We had Everett fans and friends of ours that were there and waited through the entire day with us. They just weren’t going to give up.

“When it happened, I had no idea who drafted him. I had to look up at the board because I just had no idea. By that time, I thought we were done. I was worried about what we were going to do next, because the excitement was starting to dwindle and the panic was setting in. But as soon as his name was called, nothing else that had happened earlier in the day mattered at all. It all went away.”

As fate would have it, with the 214th pick, the Calgary Flames had selected Dustin. His pro career would start in his native California, with the Stockton Heat ― less than 100 miles from where the journey began on a patio, a metal shed and Sharks community ice.

Photo: Kevin Light/Getty Images

Wolf may not yet be old enough to drink, can’t yet rent a car without added fees, but he’s crossed a fair amount off his to-do list. He’s won awards, most recently AHL Goaltender of the Month for December. He’s won. A lot. He’s shown that he belongs.

Oh, and he’s met his childhood idol, who donned the number 20 between the pipes in San Jose.

“The Sharks were always the team, and Nabokov was my guy,” he said. “I attached myself to him pretty quickly. There was a kid that seemed to always have gear from Nabokov, and I was always jealous of that. A couple of summers ago (in 2020) when the pandemic was really big, back home and hanging out with family, I had an old coach who set up a meeting with Nabby. We sat down and had a chit-chat.

“It was crazy. I grew up watching him play hockey. Next thing I knew, I was able to interact with him as just people.”

It was a checked box, but also a wake-up call for Dustin. Who knows in several years’ time how many children will look at the young netminder the way he once looked at the Kazakhstan native?

As his professional journey starts back where it began, he understands the weight of both expectation and potential. He wants to take the path few have trod ― rise from a California crease to one in the NHL.

“From when I started playing, the game has grown tremendously in California,” said Wolf, throwing in a nod to the Stanley Cups won by the Kings and Ducks. “There’s been a bunch of guys these last few years who were drafted, played their first games and make big impacts in the league. It’s huge for guys coming out of here, kids look up to you. To have them be able to say they live five minutes from where this guy or that guy grew up, it’s huge. It creates a ‘Why can’t that be me?’ sort of thing.

“It’s only going to keep growing. It’s only going to do wonders, the more guys who make it from around here.”

To pass the final hurdle, Dustin will have to do what he’s never done ― make it alone. He had his parents in Gilroy and L.A., then in Everett. He has family come through Stockton every now and then, his parents occasionally catching games, and is a short drive from home. They were able to come watch his first game with the Flames, watching from seats on the glass as he backed up Jacob Markstrom in Seattle.

To achieve his dream, it will mean leaving the comforts of the California grounds that raised him, depart from the support system he’s known his whole life and make it with the big club in Calgary. It’s a challenge he’s ready for.

“It’s always going to be a learning process in terms of breaking new ground, learning to be a pro,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to be with family my whole life. Can’t beat home cooking or the comfort of them being close.

“But it’s nice to be able to have a place you can call your own, and I’m working to make Calgary that place. It won’t come easy, but it’s what I’m working toward, figuring out how to make myself the best I can be.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Dustin Wolf (@wolfie2332)