His name was never called in the NHL draft, but that didn’t stop Alton native Dakota Mermis from finding a different path to an opportunity with the top hockey league in the world.
The 21-year-old defenseman parlayed a strong season and playoff run in the Ontario Hockey League into a three-year entry-level contract he signed Wedensday with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
He will attend training camp with the Coyotes and hopes to put on a strong performance that leads to a roster spot with their American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Mass., or elsewhere.
“It was exciting for me personally and it was a long time coming,” said Mermis, who had six goals and 30 points in 66 games last season with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights. “It was disappointing to go undrafted, but obviously I’m still confident in my abilities. To be able to get this deal done and share this with my family and friends is a nice reward for all the hard work I’ve put in since I was a little kid.
“The point of getting drafted is to eventually sign a contract and a lot of players that are drafted don’t get to sign. I’m really proud to say I’m part of the small group of guys that go undrafted and still earned a contract own the road.”
Mermis (6-foot, 190 pounds) had a memorable spring capped by an amazing playoff run that culminated in his team winning the Memorial Cup, the top honor in junior hockey. His job during the OHL championship series was shadowing Connor McDavid, the Erie Otters superstar that went first overall to the Edmonton Oilers last week in the NHL Draft.
Oshawa won that series and advanced to the Memorial Cup tournament, beating Kelowna to win the championship.
“People around here don’t quite understand it as much, but after the Stanley Cup it’s the hardest trophy to win in hockey,” said Mermis, who played in two previous Memorial Cups with London before winning one this season with Oshawa. “You win four rounds and you play the other champions and teams that have won their league. It’s a grinding 10 days and it’s amazing to say that I’ve been able to win it.”
And also to say that he had a hand in shutting down McDavid, whom Mermis helped hold scoreless in two of five playoff games. That was no easy feat considering McDavid had 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 games this season with Erie.
“It was great,” Mermis said. “He’s a world-class player and he’s going to go on to have a world-class carer, but it was en exciting time for me to have that opportunity to play against him. He’s a tough player to defend, but our coaches did a great job of preparing us for the task at hand. We were able to get the job done and really limit his opportunities.”
Mermis is part of a recent wave of metro-east and St. Louis area players enjoying success on the national and international level.
Shiloh native Connor Chatham was a third-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2014. The 19-year-old forward had 17 goals and 37 points in 48 games this season with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
Chatham will be at the Devils’ prospect camp later this summer and hopes to sign and land a spot on their AHL affiliate.
Swansea’s Clayton Keller is considered among the top forwards in his age group and could be a high draft pick in 2016. The 16-year-old forward had 34 goals and 82 points in only 61 games last season, splitting time with the U.S. National Development Team Program’s 18-under and 17-under national squads.
Effingham native Luke Opilka is a goalie drafted in the fifth round last week by the St. Louis Blues. Opilka also played for the AAA Blues and at one point was coached by former Blues star Keith Tkachuk.
Mermis spent part of his early career at the East Alton Ice Arena, then shifted over to St. Louis to play with the Affton Americans program and later the St. Louis AAA Blues.
His father, Bill Mermis, still coaches the AAA Blues 16-under team and Dakota Mermis also has played for former Blues defenseman Rob Ramage.
“Hockey has grown a lot in St. Louis and certainly a lot of ex-Blues players and sticking around and living in St. Louis is helping a lot as well,” said Mermis, who also credited a strong group of local amateur coaches and programs for helping build a foundation of talent. “People like that are committed to growing hockey in St. Louis and they put a lot of time into helping the players develop.”
Mermis attended his first two years of high school at Alton High. He spent his junior year in Ann Arbor, Mich., playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, then was in Green Bay, Wisc., as a senior playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League.
Like most St. Louis area players, Mermis had to leave the area to find elite level competition that prepared him for future success.
“I left home when I was 16, but at the same time it makes you mature a lot quicker and you get to do a lot of good stuff along the way,” he said. “My family’s extremely proud. They’ve been with me through all the highs and all the lows. It’s definitely not just myself celebrating, it’s my whole family and my brother (Jarrod), too. He’s older than me (Jarrod Mermis played at Denver University) and pushed me hard all the way through.”