By Phil Perry
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Twenty miles southwest of Boston, a crooked highway’s drive from the glare of city lights, Derrick Pallis depended on an artificial glow all his own.
At night, after finishing his school work, Pallis would rush onto the hardened ice of the pond behind his family’s Medfield, Mass., home. The friendly glow from a nearby lamp post flooded Pallis’ frozen sheet, allowing him to skate for hours on end.
As long as the lights were on, so was he.
The only thing that could pull him off the spot where he learned to skate and honed his shot was that dreaded time of night, that last call for all things childish and fun: bed time.
“I don’t even know how late I’d skate. My parents would have to yell at me to come in,” Pallis said. “Once winter came, I was glued to the pond.”
Now, 19 years after first setting foot on that pond as a 2-year-old, Pallis is still glued to the ice. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Princeton junior defenseman plays in every conceivable situation for the Tigers and is one of the team’s leaders in minutes played.
Alongside captain Taylor Fedun, he is one half of the team’s top defensive pairing. He plays in four-on-four situations, on the penalty kill and is one of the cogs in Princeton’s seventh-ranked power-play unit. He had six goals and 12 assists through 27 games this season.
“He’s so smart, he can play everywhere,” Tigers coach Guy Gadowski said. “He plays fast. He moves pucks and he’s not afraid to jump up in the play. He’s a really fun player to watch.”
Watching Pallis may be entertaining, but the pleasure is all his. Always has been. Ever since his father, Kevin, first put a stick in his hand, Pallis hasn’t stopped enjoying the game. Whether he was being scraped off the family pond in the winter or pelting his volunteer goalie (his mom, Julie) with tennis balls in the driveway when the weather warmed, he was always playing. Always shooting.
In fact, the skills that landed him on the South Shore Kings under coach Dan Whitney (father to Ryan Whitney of the Edmonton Oilers) never screamed “defenseman!” No, the puck-mover with the offensive intangibles started out as a forward. It made sense. There wasn’t much backwards skating being done on the family pond, after all. Where was the fun in that?
But when Whitney (Scituate, Mass.) asked Pallis to change positions as a teenager, he happily obliged. With fewer defenders on the team than forwards, the switch meant one thing: more ice time.
“At that point, I was just excited to be out there,” he said. “It stuck.”
So, too, did some of his forward skills.
He went on to play at Noble and Greenough, where he caught Princeton’s eye as a slithery blueliner who wouldn’t be forechecked and quickly carried pucks out of his own zone. He matriculated into the Ivy League as one of its youngest hockey players. Unlike many Division 1 players, he did not do an extra preparatory year, nor did he spend any time playing junior hockey.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming in,” Pallis said, looking back. “Honestly, I had no idea. But it’s just one big family. We’re a very close-knit group of guys. We ended up doing everything together and so you immediately come in and feel like you’re part of a family. That helped with confidence on the ice.”
So did his exceptional feel for the game. Despite his relative lack of size and strength, he played in all but two games in his rookie season and was voted the team’s top freshman for a Tigers team that earned itself an NCAA tournament berth.
His body and his range of skills have grown since then.
“He’s become a leader by example,” Gadowski said. “He has this infectious attitude. He’s working hard every day and he does it with a big smile on his face.”
Fedun has witnessed — and been dragged into — Pallis’ eager work ethic first hand.
Early this season, when the team’s power play wasn’t firing, Pallis knew it was partly because their timing was off with one-timers back at the blue line.
“At the end of every practice for quite a while, he was bugging me to stay out and work on that kind of stuff,” Fedun said. “It’s a great trait to have, and it’s helped me get better being able to work with him that much.”
After starting this season 14-6-1, the Tigers hit a bit of a snag, dropping three of four as they positioned themselves for the postseason. To help his team turn things around, Fedun knows he’ll find Pallis on the ice, late, putting in extra work.
That’s what it will take to play well in the ECAC tournament, and possibly beyond, when the lights are on.
“It’s hard work but it’s always fun,” Pallis said. “You don’t keep playing hockey unless you realize you really love the game.”
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com