For those who grow up in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, hockey is nearly a birthright. So almost since he was born, Nolan De Jong has been itching to start playing the sport.
His father, Kevin De Jong, played in a men’s league, and Nolan would go to his games with his mother and brother to watch.
“His deal with me was that if I was potty-trained, if I could use a toilet, then he would teach me how to skate,” De Jong said. “That was his deal with me, because I wanted to play hockey so bad, because I saw him playing and watched it on TV and everything.”
From there, De Jong never looked back. He played in a minor league in his hometown and began improving his craft. And it didn’t take long for De Jong to realize that he might have a future in hockey.
Years later, De Jong is living that future in Ann Arbor.
Before every game, the Michigan hockey team crowds around the goal. Players drape over the back of the net, and the starting goalie crouches in the crease. The Children of Yost give another round of the “Let’s Go Blue” chant to the tune of the pep band, and the rest of the fans get louder in anticipation for puck drop. But among all the commotion, the players are silent. All the players, that is, except one: De Jong.
De Jong gives the final pep talk before the puck drops, visibly bobbing his head, giving his teammates encouraging words before they take the ice against their opponents.
In some ways, this position seems an obvious endpoint for the boy who started skating at that Victoria rink at age 2. In reality, it’s not that simple.
De Jong has always felt the passion that he now exhibits as a captain of the Wolverines. And when he was a child, that passion paired with physical ability to start him on the right track.
“I always knew I was one of the better, more competitive guys from pretty much when I was 6 or 7,” De Jong said. “Me and my best friend (American International College forward Shawn McBride), we would just kind of get the puck and we could skate through everyone at a pretty young age.
McBride further attested to De Jong’s hard work: “He was tons of fun to hang out with and be around, but then when it came time to work hard, he was the hardest-working guy. That’s a lot like he is today, and that’s how he was back then.”
De Jong’s hard work translated to early notice from colleges. Before he had even played his first game in junior hockey, De Jong received his first offer from Cornell. And from a school with such academic and hockey prestige, that offer was enough for De Jong. He committed to play for the Big Red, and Michigan moved its focus to other recruits.
Michigan knew about De Jong in those days. In fact, Wolverines assistant coach Brian Wiseman went to British Columbia to take a look at him. But when Wiseman arrived, he soon found out about De Jong’s commitment to Cornell, and Michigan went home packing.
The pursuit wasn’t over, though. Once De Jong and his family took a deeper look into the financial prospects at an Ivy League school, they reconsidered their options.
“Cornell doesn’t do scholarships because they’re Ivy League,” Kevin De Jong said. “And when it came down to that, we were looking at either paying a bunch of money for him to go there, or he said, ‘There’s probably other opportunities,’ and Michigan was at the top of the list.”
When the Wolverines caught wind of De Jong’s decommitment, they pounced.
“It was about a year later that we had heard he decommitted with Cornell,” Berenson said. “So then he was available. And we knew enough about him to go ahead and recruit him.”
For De Jong, the move to Michigan wasn’t easy. He had spent his entire life in Victoria, even playing juniors for the hometown Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League. So when he came to Ann Arbor, it was the first time De Jong had to spend an extended period of time away from home.
“In hindsight, it’s a funny situation,” De Jong said. “(My parents) basically packed me up and put my life in a few suitcases and a hockey bag and said, ‘There you go.’ You kind of get thrown into it a little bit, but I’m glad it worked out that way.”
But De Jong wasn’t necessarily alone. He came to Ann Arbor as a part of a vaunted recruiting class that included 11 players. The shining stars in the class were JT Compher and Tyler Motte. They were fresh off a stint with the United States National Team Development Program, a team that is made up every year of the most talented players in the country. Even Michael Downing was considered a superior defenseman to De Jong entering college. So it wasn’t expected that De Jong would have to be a star right away.
And that turned out to be the case, at least early on. De Jong struggled in his first two years at Michigan, tallying just nine points — all on assists — in two seasons over 52 games.
“Things have not been easy for Nolan,” Berenson said. “He came here and he ran into a wall, and it was a big jump for him, and in terms of his confidence and his role on the team and how he played and how he expected to play. And he had a hard time living up to that.”
The rest of De Jong’s recruiting class, meanwhile, played starring roles. Compher and Motte developed statistically into two of the best forwards in Wolverine history. And heading into this season, it was expected that those two would return to play in their senior seasons with De Jong and company — especially after Berenson announced he would also return after speculations of his retirement.
They didn’t stay, though. Instead, Compher, Motte and even Downing all opted to head to the NHL, and Michigan was left with holes to fill.
“I was really close, especially with JT and (Motte), so it’s weird,” De Jong said. “It didn’t really kick in until we were doing summer workouts and running the stadium and doing all of the stuff where I’m so used to having them there in the locker room. So it was a little bit bizarre, and that’s where it started to set in, like, ‘Where are those guys?’ ”
Once those players left, there were questions of who would step up as a scorer, who would fill in on the defensive blue line and, maybe most importantly, who would reveal themselves as the team’s leader. And as the season crept closer, those questions persisted.
In preseason interviews and press conferences, senior forward Alex Kile was pegged as a likely candidate to fill some of those roles. After all, he was the team’s leading returning scorer and, as a senior, it made sense for him to be the mouthpiece for the team. However, when captains were announced in early October, some were surprised to see that Kile would be serving as a co-captain along with fellow senior De Jong.
Those on the team weren’t surprised at all, though. Even De Jong had a hunch that he might get the nod along with Kile.
“I expected it,” De Jong said. “Me and Alex took responsibility, because there’s a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes. We were coordinating times and doing team events and things like that even during spring and summer.”
Added senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, a roommate of De Jong’s: “Just talking about captains we’ve had here, we’ve had a range of different guys since I’ve been here. We’ve had guys that are very vocal, we’ve had guys that aren’t super vocal, but they just lead by what they do every single day, and I think Nolan does a good job of embodying both of those things.”
A good captain can only do so much, though, and De Jong has his own limitations. He has never scored a goal while playing for Michigan — something that his teammates jokingly remind him of.
“We definitely give him a hard time about that,” Nagelvoort said. “Personally I would love to see him put up a couple of goals this year. I think that would be awesome. But it’s a hockey team — you’ve got to have thick skin, and we definitely give him a hard time.”
Of course, De Jong realizes scoring goals isn’t his most important job. In his eyes, building team camaraderie will lead to the most success for the team. And with a freshman-laden roster this year, that task has become even more important for him.
“People keep talking like, ‘What are you going to do about the scoring?’ and ‘What are you going to do about this or that?’,” De Jong said. “But I think if we have a hard-working team that’s extremely tight at the rink and hangs out away from the rink, that’s going to make us a better team than anything.”
But De Jong has clearly filled his new role with grace. He doesn’t have to put in extra effort to get along with younger teammates or lead by example — that comes naturally to him.
“I can go talk to anybody at any time,” he said. “It’s never awkward if it’s just me and one guy. We have something to talk about. We have something in common, so it’s pretty easy, with the group of guys we have, to be friends with everyone.”
Now De Jong is a co-captain on an extremely young Michigan team, and the pressure is firmly on him. With all of the attrition that the Wolverines face this season, he is one of the most experienced players on the roster. And, despite never scoring a goal in college, he’s going to be expected to produce now.
But with this being his senior season, De Jong isn’t worried. Instead, he’s more focused on taking everything in.
“We have so many alumni come in and talk to us, and the coaches talk to us, and every single guy says how fast it goes by,” De Jong said. “So I do my best to try and take it in. But at the same time, I know it’s not really going to hit me until I leave and kind of realize what we had here.”
That sentiment was made evident this weekend, when De Jong’s parents came to visit him. They have only visited a few times total over De Jong’s career, but this season they are making an effort to see him more.
After both practices on Wednesday and Thursday, the three gathered just off the ice. De Jong sat on the bleachers with one foot up next to him. He smiled and nodded along with his parents as he stared out onto the ice, watching his teammates finish up their days with shooting and skating drills.
De Jong has seen it all. He’s been a top-three defenseman in terms of points on a playoff team in the BCHL, he’s been a freshman fighting for ice time 2,000 miles away from home, and now, he’s the top defenseman for the 11th-ranked Wolverines.
But after all of that, De Jong is clearly in his element. It’s his turn now. And the people who know him best have taken notice of that.
“Each year he’s gotten more comfortable there,” McBride said. “I feel like he’s ready for this. He wanted this, and he’s got it now, and he’s going to run with it.”