The moment Jeff Jillson had dreamed of every time he laced his
skates had finally come. As he sat with his family just before
the NHL entry draft began last June in Boston's FleetCenter, he
felt exhilarated, but his mind was playing tricks on him. When
commissioner Gary Bettman started calling the names of drafted
players, Jillson tried to lower his expectations so that he
wouldn't be upset if he wasn't selected early. "I've seen too
many guys get their hopes up only to be disappointed," says
Jillson, now a sophomore defenseman at Michigan. "Where you're
drafted really doesn't matter; it's what you do with the
opportunity. As I sat there hearing other people's names being
called, I tried to keep everything in perspective."
Then it happened. The San Jose Sharks chose Jillson with the
14th pick, making him the first collegiate player taken, and as
he made his way to the podium, he vowed not to let his selection
go to his head. When Jillson pulled on a Sharks sweater a few
seconds later, his feeling of jubilation gave way to another
promise: This would be just the beginning. "For a lot of guys
the draft is the pinnacle, but I don't see it that way," says
Jillson, 19. "I want to use this as a stepping stone to propel
me to where I want to go. The draft becomes a part of history
pretty quickly. It won't matter if I stop working hard."
Though he was 6'3" and 220 pounds, Jillson realized he wasn't
ready for the rigors of the NHL and returned to Michigan this
season, where he has been tearing up the Central Collegiate
Hockey Association (CCHA) with his aggressiveness and tenacity.
He's second on the Wolverines in scoring, with six goals and 21
assists, and is +10 for Michigan (19-6-1), which stands atop the
conference and last week was No. 3 in the nation.
For a big defenseman, Jillson has unusual facility for handling
the puck and setting up his teammates from the point, and he
doesn't shy away from mixing it up in the corners: He received
a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension after
fighting with Ohio State wing Jean-Francois Dufour in the third
period of the Wolverines' 6-4 victory on Jan. 21.
"What impressed us about Jeff is that not only does he skate,
shoot and handle the puck very well, but he's also continually
developing and adding to his game," says San Jose general
manager Dean Lombardi, who witnessed the fisticuffs in the match
against the Buckeyes. "We felt very lucky to get him at 14. He's
a very good prospect and has the potential to be the whole
package. There's no doubt that in time he'll be ready to play in
the NHL. It's just a question of when."
Jillson isn't in a rush to leave school and sign with the
Sharks, who own his rights until he leaves college. He enjoys
life in Ann Arbor, and as long as he feels he's being challenged
on the ice, he would rather stay at Michigan and work toward a
degree in sports business than prematurely move to the pros.
Michigan coach Red Berenson, who played in the NHL for 17
seasons and was coach of the St. Louis Blues for three years,
says college hockey doesn't get the respect it deserves as a
place to develop prospects, and he thinks it wouldn't hurt
Jillson to stay longer. "My barometer to determine whether a guy
is ready to make the jump is if he's dominant on the collegiate
level night after night," says Berenson, who is 412-203-38 in
15-plus seasons with the Wolverines. "Jeff is getting close to
that point, but he still needs time. You play more games in
juniors, but here you're playing against older kids, and it can
be a lot more physical. Jeff is in a unique situation because of
his size and position. Big kids and defensemen take a little
longer to develop. For those reasons I think the college game is
a perfect place for him."
There was a time when college wasn't in Jillson's future. While
growing up in North Smithfield, R.I., Jeff also excelled at
soccer and baseball, but hockey was his first love, and he
developed into one of the best players in the state. As a
ninth-grader he enrolled at Mount St. Charles Academy, a private
school in Woonsocket, R.I., that has a reputation as a hockey
factory after winning 22 consecutive state high school
championships and producing a plethora of NHL players, including
former No. 1 picks Brian Lawton, the first American chosen first
overall, in 1983, and Bryan Berard, the top selection in '95.
After Jillson was on his third consecutive title-winning team,
in 1997, he decided he would leave at the end of his junior year
of high school and prepare for the NHL by playing junior hockey
in Canada. That spring, after he was drafted by the Plymouth
(Mich.) Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, he said goodbye to
his friends, coaches and teachers. But earlier that school year
Jillson had contracted mononucleosis, and during final exams in
June at Mount St. Charles he suffered a relapse that lasted the
entire summer. He could barely move from his couch, let alone
skate, so he returned to his old school for his senior year
rather than play in juniors at less than full strength.
"Everybody was telling Jeff that the best way for him to make it
to the pros was to go to juniors, but I didn't feel right about
that," says Jeff's mother, Linda. "I was afraid that he'd grow
up too fast and miss out on a lot of great things. I didn't say
anything because I didn't want to hold him back and sound like
an overprotective mother. Then the mono came back, and it was
almost as if someone was sending us a message."
As a senior, Jillson helped Mount St. Charles win another state
crown, and then he chose to move on to college rather than
junior hockey, because he wanted to play against older, more
physical opponents. After a short period of adjustment last
season, he excelled in Berenson's aggressive style; he was named
to the CCHA all-rookie team and led the Wolverines at +22. When
Jillson was drafted, Berenson worried that the honor might go to
Jillson's head, but his performance to early this season allayed
Although Lombardi and Sharks scouts frequently come to watch him
play, Jillson feels no pressure to leave school early. He says
he'll wait until after this season to sit down with his parents,
Berenson and the Sharks to discuss his future. "I know the
Sharks have invested a lot of time and effort in me, but I'm
here, not there, and I have to take care of things at Michigan
first," says Jillson. "When the time comes, I'll be ready."
Still, Jillson sometimes finds himself daydreaming about what it
would be like to be an NHL hotshot, thoughts that are quickly
tempered by reality. He knows that not many 19- or 20-year-old
defensemen are in the league. "Things couldn't be any better for
me," he says. "I've been drafted in the first round, and I'm
getting an education at a great school. I have the best of both
worlds. When the time comes to move on, I'll know it. Right now,
the most important thing for me is patience."
COLOR PHOTO: JON MURESAN The 6'3", 220-pound defenseman is tearing up the CCHA with his tenacity.
The 14th choice in the 1999 draft, Jillson was the first college