The fickle hands of fate can act in very mysterious ways, at times - and soon-to-be member of the AIC (American International College) Yellow Jackets NCAA Div I men’s hockey team Dario Beljo is just fine with that.
“I don’t know that I ever would have made the decision had it not been for me with Covid,” said the now 21 year-old forward and two-time Centennial Cup champion with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The decision to be made would have involved bypassing a potential OHL career with the London Knights and following in the footsteps of his uncle, Jadran, a winger who netted more than 100 goals during his time with the Peterborough Petes, Mississauga Ice Dogs and the Knights.
“To be honest, I was so blinded by the lights of the OHL,” noted Dario, quite candidly, a 10th round selection of the London junior juggernaut in 2018. “Growing up, going to Sudbury Wolves’ games, watching my uncle play, all I ever cared about, even at 17, was playing in the OHL.”
“For me, Covid was a blessing because I don’t know where I would be right now if I had played OHL.”
Coming off a very productive 2019-2020 campaign with the Komoka Kings of the GOJHL (45GP - 31G - 27A), Beljo was looking forward to taking a serious run at a spot on the Knights lineup - if not for that damned global pandemic.
“I thought at 18, I was maybe ready to make the jump,” he said. “The only reason I went out there (Brooks, AB) in the first place was because I hadn’t signed an OHL letter yet - and Alberta was playing and no one else was.”
The team saw limited action in 2020-2021 but with his role on the team growing larger, Beljo followed with a very nice sophomore year (58GP - 28G - 29A) and an even better campaign as he took over the team captaincy this past year (60GP - 34G -55A), the Bandits making it three straight national junior titles and two with the Sudbury lad aboard.
“I think I have always done a good job of adapting to what the team needed,” said Beljo, looking back on five years of junior hockey. “I feel like I have been a very different player every year, but always with the same core. All five years, I have brought something different to the table.”
“Each season is kind of unique in that way,” he added. “I kind of saw what the team was missing. I think you have to be able to adapt like that. Not only is it better for the team, it gets you in the lineup.”
This year, Beljo added the “C” on his jersey to his repertoire - and for as much as he is more than comfortable in being true to his own character with a leadership role, there was a whole other layer (or perhaps several layers) to his new duties that he had not really foreseen.
“To be honest, I think I was a little naive,” said Beljo. “I didn’t realize how much of a step it would be, just in terms of the day to day responsibilities. In the past, I could come in and just kind of focus on my own game. I never thought about whether everybody else on the team was ready to play or not.”
“I could just do my job and let other guys worry about the other stuff.”
On any junior team, stepping in as captain is a big deal. On a squad that has legitimate national championship aspirations from the opening of training camp and with a program that is run as close to parallel to major junior hockey (OHL/WHL/QJMHL) as one could imagine, the importance grows tenfold.
“Now I come in and I’m not just worrying about my practice, I am worrying about the team’s practice,” Beljo continued. “You start to notice these things that you never even thought about before. It was a great experience for me.”
In fact, the further he has progressed in the game, the more his experiences would grow exponentially, a fact that he credits in part to his fellow SMHA product that he so often would emulate.
“The biggest influence for me was my uncle, Jadran,” stated Dario. “From the time I was super young, he was telling me all of these things: don’t worry about your points, worry about doing the right things on the defensive side of the puck, worry about being coachable.”
“All of these things ended up making a difference at the end of the day.”
The only remaining question was where, exactly, his development would take place, the Bandits ultimately securing an absolute gem. “I could go on for hours talking about how phenomenal the Brooks program is,” said Beljo. “I feel so lucky to have been a part of it, everything from the coaching to being surrounded by players that are also extremely motivated and committed.”
At the end of the day, whether these players sought out the coveted hockey sanctuary for years or whether they simply arrived there by the fate of Covid-19 mattered very little.
The experience would be what you made of it - and Dario Beljo clearly made the most of his time out west.