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Dario Beljo: Finding his own unique role - and a national title too
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There are sacrifices not many young hockey prospects will make.

Far easier to latch on to a team where a top six role is assured, where points will accumulate far more quickly than on a roster that ranks among the very best in the country.

Dario Beljo knew all of that coming in.

In the abbreviated 2019-2020 season, the local power forward who was a 10th round pick of the London Knights racked up 31 goals and 27 assists in 45 games with the Komoka Kings of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

Those numbers would have most certainly grown if he had returned. None of that was guaranteed when he signed on with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Yes, "those" Brooks Bandits, recently crowned Centennial Cup champions with the 19 year old SMHA product a big part of the picture. Not that any of this could have been forecasted with much certainty less than twelve months ago.

"It was a bit of a weird summer," said Beljo, alluding to those few months in 2021. "I had shoulder surgery, wasn't able to do much training. My first time getting back into things was when our season started. That was kind of a rough way to start the year."

"Here we are nine months later and I can laugh about it with our coaches," he added, having just concluded his exit interview the same day that we connected by phone.

Sometimes, you need to take a bit of a leap of faith - even if it may not feed the ego.

"Everything that has happened this season is pretty much everything I could have hoped for coming into it," said Beljo. "At the end of the day, I'm right where I want to be."

Small wonder.

Despite manning what amounted to a third line checking role for the majority of his five on five shifts, Beljo still amassed 28 goals and 29 assists with the Bandits this year, adding three goals and three assists in the national tournament that culminated with a 4-1 win over the Pickering Panthers in the final.

Exactly how he would go about producing these totals, well, that's perhaps a little out of the ordinary.

"Last year (2020-2021), I didn't really play enough games to kind of solidify my role on the team," Beljo reflected. "Even though I was coming back as a second year veteran, I was still trying to find my unique way of contributing."

"A big part of it ended up being as a net front position on the power play. I was given that opportunity the third or fourth game in to try it out and that unit stayed together all year, we clicked at a really high rate."

That, of course, made things a little easier when it came time to hit the ice on non-specialty team situations, a process for which he gives a great deal of credit to Bandits head coach Ryan Papaioannou and his staff.

"My coaches helped me find my own identity as a player," said Beljo. "We (power play unit) had a responsibility to go out there and get big goals - but the rest of the time, the five on fives, I was getting more defensive zone starts, trying to lock down their better lines."

In fact, it was quickly apparent from the moment he arrived in Alberta that there was only so much ice time to go around for so many talented players. Accepting that, though perhaps not easy, clearly has its rewards.

"The thing about our team is that we have four lines of guys who were top scorers on whatever team they came from before," stated the very well-spoken northern product. "Everybody can score. You just have some other lines with older guys who can do it better right now."

"We have a top line that combined for 400 points this year, between the three of them. When they're going out and getting goals, you have to kind of sit back and think: do we really need another one or do we have to be responsible here and win our match-ups."

"I think everyone on our team did that really well."

It's an unselfish approach that does not go unnoticed.

Earlier this year, Beljo committed to the American International Yellow Jackets (NCAA) in Springfield, Massachusetts. Members of the AHA (Atlantic Hockey Association), the school which began its hockey program in 1948 has now made three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

Thankfully, now that he has somewhat found his niche, the nephew of former OHLer Jadran Beljo is not likely to have to flip that script a whole lot when he reports state-side in the fall of 2023.

"I think AIC committed to me because they like the player that I already am," said Beljo. "I am sure they see me fitting into their system with the style I already play. Next year is about fine-tuning everything and growing more without really changing as a player."

The plan is to return to the Bandits, to help the team defend their national title. There is ample reason for Beljo to feel more than comfortable now in that setting.

"I don't think before coming to Brooks, I truly had my identity as a player," he explained. "I kind of tried to do a bit of everything, a jack of all trades, but I hadn't really found my thing that would help me stick at the next level."

"My coaches in Brooks really helped me find the style of play that I needed to play to be successful, embracing the big man role while still tapping into the defensive knowledge that I had."

Sounds like an identity, indeed. Of course, so does Dario Beljo: national champion. Both likely work just fine for the friendly Sudbury native.

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