Every professional athlete knows that in order to be successful, they’ve got to know how to handle pressure and intense situations. Stress, nerves, and high expectations are all part of the package.
But imagine being an 18-year-old hockey player, invited to the Montreal Canadiens mini-combine just before the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Big stakes, right? Now imagine your flight to Montreal gets canceled the day before the event and the next flight isn’t available until the following morning. “I got there in the morning, and my bags didn’t show up, and I’m already like an hour late because of the flight,” recalls Josiah Didier. “I think I had maybe 20 minutes before I was supposed to be on the ice and the equipment guys had to get me all brand new gear.”
Many people would be completely rattled in a situation like this, trying to perform at their highest level in the biggest audition of their lives, in equipment they’ve never worn. But not Didier. With his usual tenacity and determination, he made the best of the day and impressed the coaches and management staff with his hard work in the face of adversity.
The payoff? Didier was drafted in the 4th round that year (#97) by the Montreal Canadiens, and the now-24-year-old defenseman fondly recalls the moment when his childhood dream came true. “To be able to have that [dream] happen and to be with my family, it was just an unbelievable moment that we all shared together.”
Getting selected by an original six team only added to Didier’s excitement. “They are the most storied franchise in the NHL. For them to believe in me and think I have potential and want to draft me, it was an incredible and huge honor to be part of the Montreal Canadiens.”
Although he doesn’t remember the first time his parents took him skating at just 18 months old, Josiah does remember joining his first hockey team when he was five. From the very beginning, he says he knew that his life’s work would be focused inside a rink. “They’d always ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, and I was like, ‘I want to be a professional hockey player.’ And the teacher’s like, ‘No really, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘I want to be a professional hockey player.'”
In the early days of his young hockey career, Didier played as a forward and didn’t transition to the blue line until just before he became a teenager. “The coach pushed me, when I was 12, to defense because I was the best backward skater at the time,” he recalls.
Growing up in Littleton, Colorado, Didier had plenty of positive influences surrounding him both on and off the ice. His father, originally from Chicago, was a Blackhawks fan and always had hockey games playing in the house. Josiah chose a different fan path, however, and became a full-fledged supporter of the Colorado Avalanche at an early age. “Just watching Joe Sakic, he’s my favorite player. But that rivalry between the Avalanche and the Red Wings growing up was one of my favorite things ever to watch – with Patrick Roy and Lidstrom and Yzerman.”
While watching and learning from his hockey idols, Didier says his parents set an excellent example for him in terms of work ethic. He credits them with instilling in him the importance of hard work, loyalty, and dedication. “They’re the two hardest-working people I’ve ever known. They were always doing whatever they could to help me and my sisters out. They both worked lots of overtime and, you know, multiple jobs to be able to help me play hockey and pursue my dream.”
Those values can be seen each day as Josiah is typically one of the first people to arrive at the rink, and one of the last to leave at night. He claims the most important thing for him is to simply always work his hardest.
Hard work, and plenty of skill, propelled Didier through high school and into the USHL, where he played with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders for one season. Then another piece of the puzzle fell into place when he got a call from the University of Denver. “That was [my] dream school growing up and when I got the call and was recruited there and offered a scholarship there, I didn’t believe it at first,” he says. “I remember talking to my parents right after I got offered and I was like, ‘Did he just say what I think he said? Is this really happening?'”
Getting an education was also a priority for Didier, so he spent four years playing NCAA hockey for the University of Denver. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, just having those students, your peers that you go to class with every day, in the stands and screaming and yelling, cheering you on every Friday and Saturday night,” he remembers.
He also believes his time spent in the NCAA ranks prepared him for the demands of the AHL soon to come. “Every night, everyone is going as hard as they can. It’s hard-hitting, fast-paced.” The added bonus, according to Josiah, was getting four more years to develop his game and his physical stature. “I was pretty small my freshman year. And by small, I don’t mean short. (laughs) I mean weight-wise, not a lot of muscle and everything.”
Now the six-foot-three-inch athlete weighs in at 218 lbs, and opponents have learned to fear his hulking, powerful frame when he’s coming their way to finish his checks. Just after finishing his last game in Denver, Didier was sent off to Hamilton, Ontario to join the Bulldogs for the end of their season. It was a whirlwind experience, being thrust into the AHL with a completely new system to learn, but Didier says he simply concentrated on the task at hand. “The one thing I just focused on was playing my game, my style, and just shuttin’ guys down and being physical out there, just helping my team.”
His first two years pro were spent in St. John’s Newfoundland, where the Canadiens farm team moved to in 2015 – an experience Josiah says he’ll never forget. “Being from a landlocked state, I don’t get to see the ocean very much so being able to live right by the bay and be able to look out and see the cargo ships and just, the beauty of the province,” he states. The fans also impacted him and the team in many ways. “Felt like the whole city was out there supporting us every single night. It was a great experience for the two years there and I’ll always remember my time there.”
Admittedly, his time with the St. John’s IceCaps had its share of ups and downs. At times this past season, with the coaches facing a logjam of defensive players, Didier occasionally found himself as a healthy scratch. But he claims it only served to push him further and drive his motivation. “It was hard, I’m not gonna lie, watching from the stands, but I think that just motivated me even more to work harder than I was and just to do whatever it takes to get back in the lineup.”
Josiah believes his coaches also played a big part in helping him stay on track, especially Donald Dufresne. “He’s just such a good teacher and, you know, he cares a lot. He cares a lot about my development and, so all the time he put in, whether it was watching video or going in early for practice or staying late,” Didier recalls, “The amount of care he put in and the effort he put in to try to help me better myself as a hockey player, I can’t be thankful enough for.”
At the time of this interview, Didier was still a free agent and concentrating on his summer conditioning regimen with his long-time strength coach in Colorado. Foot speed, strength, and power testing, he reports, are all priorities this offseason. Since our interview, the Charlotte Checkers announced that they have signed Didier to a one-year, two-way contract. It seems that perseverance and hard work continues to pay off for this young defenseman.
For Josiah, living his dream of playing professional hockey, and continuing to pursue his dream to play in the NHL, has been an incredible experience. But he says the biggest thing that hockey has given him is the life lesson of how to be a good teammate. “You can’t get through life by yourself. You have to be surrounded by people that have the same goals, that have the same lifestyle as you, and I think just being around teammates and just being together and working toward that common goal, winning championships as a team – that’s going to translate over to life.”
Didier knows how much hard work, passion, and commitment it takes to reach the highest levels of this sport. But just like that day at the Montreal combine, where plenty of others would have crumbled under the pressure, Josiah is determined to keep pushing himself to overcome every obstacle on the path to fulfilling his dream. “I’m not there yet. It’s the little things every day that I just try and get better at, and just trying to work harder than everyone else – even when no one is watching – and hopefully I can get to the next level.”
Listen to the full audio from my interview with Josiah Didier below: