Brian Savage calls it a “hockey candy store.” The Red Bull Academy in Salzburg, Austria features state-of-the-art facilities and the ability for young players to improve their games to a level that could pay off with a future professional career.
A young Noah Dobson and his family saw just that and made a decision to begin a unique path to the National Hockey League.
It was during the 2015 Canada Winter Games tournament in Prince George, B.C. that Dobson came on the radar of Paul Henry, a Red Bull scout who helped put together Canada’s 1994 Olympic team. In a tournament that featured future NHL draft picks like Owen Tippett, Gabe Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan and fellow 2018 prospects like Jett Woo, Joe Veleno and Calen Addison, the 15-year-old Dobson had an impressive showing with four goals and eight points in six games.
Henry would set up a meeting that spring with the Dobson family in Summerside, Prince Edward Island and give them the sales pitch. Intrigued, they flew to Austria to meet Pierre Page, then Red Bull’s Global Sporting Director, and Savage, who served as a North American scout.
“They were very impressed and excited to agree to come to Red Bull Academy where they could do the supervised online schooling program approved by Canadian and American Universities like Harvard and others,” Page told Pro Hockey Talk recently.
Page, who coached 636 NHL games with four teams, had a vision to make Red Bull a destination for young hockey players. As soon as players arrived, they were blown away.
“When I got over there, to stay at their facilities, it was just a whole great experience playing on a different side of the world and seeing other countries at the same time playing the game you love,” says Dobson. “It’s the kind of experience that I’m going to look back at and have lots of memories from.”
Savage’s presence helped in the recruitment. The former NHLer, who played 12 seasons in the league, moved his family, including his three boys, to Salzburg to help Page get the academy going. His son Ryan also played for Red Bull.
Dobson spent the 2015-16 season in Salzburg, playing 24 games with the U-18s and 11 games with the U-20s. Like some of his teammates, he was alone in a new country, a long ways away from his family. But the players’ schedule kept them busy, with trainings between four and six hours a day, plus schooling and access to ice any time for extra work. Savage and head coach Matt Deschamps would have the players over for some home-cooked meals and take them out for various activities, like skiing, to help deal with homesickness.
“I think it really benefited me as a player and a person, experiencing different cultures,” says Dobson.
“[Dobson] was sold on the program and totally committed to paying the price to make this year really worth it,” Page says.
Once comfort set in, and the routine of a hockey life picked up, Dobson’s game improved. Already a good skater as a tall, right-handed shot, he impressed the Red Bull scouts during the Canada Winter Games tournament holding his own against older competition. The year in Salzburg saw improvements on both ends of the ice, thanks to the additional work he was doing after practices.
“Really what he needed was some strength and guidance on and off the ice,” says Savage, who now works with hockey tournament company 200×85. “He had a really good shot. He really had a nice total package to him and we were just there to enhance it and get him to the next step. Obviously his coaches in junior have done a great job getting him to where he is now.
“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be.”
The Acadie-Bathurst Titan would make Dobson the sixth overall pick in the 2016 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft. He would spend the next two seasons compiling 24 goals and 95 points over 130 games and helping deliver a Memorial Cup this past May. As the NHL Draft approaches, he’s the fifth-ranked North American skater, and isn’t expected to have a long before hearing his name called by a team.
“I think he’s going to have a great career, whether it’s a year from now, two years from now, when he gets a little bit stronger and can compete against the men. But I see him being in those top three defensemen eventually,” says Savage. “I’m sure with his work ethic and determination he’s going to continue going strong. Whatever team gets him is gonna get lucky because he’s a great kid.”
Page, who parted with Red Bull in Feb. 2016, continued to track Dobson after he left for the QMJHL and described his development as “incredible.” He has faith in the 18-year-old’s talents and knows there’s a great NHL career ahead for him.
Says Page, “I would not want to be the team who passes on him at the draft.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.