Dirk Southern, who played for the Gladiators from 2007-09, returned to Gwinnett after several seasons overseas. (Photo: Gwinnett Gladiators/Dale Zanine)
Dirk Southern racked up 19 goals and 39 assists in 74 games playing for the Gwinnett Gladiators from 2007-09 seasons. Drafted in 2003 by Anaheim, Southern played professionally the past three years in Denmark and Italy. The 30-year-old produced 21 points in 30 games for the Danish team EfB Ishockey last season before opting to return to North America and play for the Gladiators again.
For this installemnt of “Getting to Know …,” the native of Winnipeg and Northern Michigan University product talked with staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including his hockey pedigree, his first goal and passing time on long bus rides.
CT: Do you remember the first time you skated? Or were you too young?
DS: I actually wasn’t one of those people who skated right away. I don’t think I started playing hockey until I was probably 6 or 7. I definitely wasn’t a 2-year-old out on the rink. I was kind of a late bloomer in that sense.
CT: I guess I assumed you would have started very early. Not so much because you’re Canadian, but because isn’t your family like the first family of hockey in Winnipeg?
DS: (chuckles) No. I definitely have a hockey background. My grandfather was involved in hockey in Winnipeg prominently in a certain region so they ended up naming a rink after him.
Then my father has been involved in hockey for over 35 years. Not strictly in Manitoba, but he’s been a scout for the Moose and now he’s a scout for the Jets. So I definitely have some bloodlines. My grandma played hockey, too, I think.
CT: I found the arena named for your grandfather when I googled your last name.
DS: The Sam Southern Arena in South Osborne. It’s pretty cool. They’ve since changed the sign. It used to be a massive sign. Now I think it has a couple of other things involved with it. I didn’t know my grandpa. I was 6 when he passed away from cancer, but it’s definitely something that’s pretty cool to drive by.
CT: Are there plusses and minuses having your dad involved in the game?
DS: There are definitely no negatives. I think when you’re a kid, for myself, sometimes you hear so much about hockey, it’s in one ear and out the other. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really started to appreciate how fortunate I am to have a father that’s involved in hockey. If there are questions I need to ask, he’s always around for me. It’s definitely a blessing.
Sometimes as a young kid, you always feel like your parents are telling you this and that, just trying to help. You realize that when you get a little bit older.
CT: For me, the lightbulb went on in college that, oh yeah, my parents were right about everything.
DS: (smiling) I can’t speak for everybody else — maybe I was a bit of a brat when I was younger — but I definitely am very fortunate and it’s certainly opened some doors for me.
CT: Your dad was a scout for the Moose and now is one for the Jets?
DS: He was the director of player personnel for the Moose and then was grandfathered in along with all the other people that were working for the Moose. Now he’s an NHL scout for the Jets.
CT: When did you leave home to play hockey?
DS: I left at an early age. I started playing junior when I was 16. Then I was lucky enough to get a scholarship when I was 17 and they wanted me to play a year outside of Manitoba. So when I was 17, I played a season in Lincoln, Neb., in the United States junior league and then I went on to college after that.
CT: How did your college decision-making process go?
DS: It was interesting. Like a lot of Western Canadian kids, your dream was to play major junior. There was a team two hours from me, the Brandon Wheat Kings, and they had drafted me. As I am now, I was smaller in stature when I was about 15 so I decided to play a year of junior at home.
When you skate in the summertime, it’s with a bunch of guys who some had gone to school and some had played in the Western League. A fair amount of people who played in the Western League wished they had gone to college.
I started to get some interest from colleges when I was 16 and it worked out really well.
CT: Were you deciding between a couple of different colleges and ended up at Northern (Michigan)?
DS: Yeah. The biggest thing I saw at the college I ended up going to was I really liked the coaching staff. The assistant coach, Dave Shyiak, I had a great relationship with. He recruited me and I was going to get a chance to play as a freshman. I think that was the biggest decision for me.
CT: It used to be hockey players would sit around drinking beer and fishing at the cottage on the lake during the offseason. That’s not the case now. Where did you fall in the timeline of that shift?
DS: The best thing for me, in terms of understanding what the pro game was like, was after I tore my ACL playing with the Gladiators. Because my dad worked for Manitoba and I had a good relationship with Craig Heisinger, who was the GM at the time, let me come back and rehab with one of their players. You really got an eye-opener in terms of how hard they trained and how big some of them were professionally.
That was really a stepping stone for me as far as how to train and how to eat.
CT: Do you remember what your first pro game was like?
DS: My first pro game was a home game in Augusta. I don’t remember the team (we played). I remember my first goal, but not my first game.
CT: When was your first goal?
DS: It was against the South Carolina Stingrays. I actually had a breakaway. I don’t know if I was coming out of the penalty box or what, but I had a breakaway and I went five-hole. I got fortunate. I think it was my third game of the season. So it was good I got it off my back.
CT: The decision to go overseas, what were the biggest factors for you?
DS: I think a lot of guys here — as they should — have the vision of playing in the NHL. Or if you start in the ECHL, obviously your goal is to get to the next level. As any hockey player, you want to play at the highest level possible. I had realized that it was just time for me to try something different. As a kid, I’d always wanted to go see Europe. So it was a good opportunity and my first year over in Europe was probably one of the best years in terms of hockey I’ve ever had. I played in a great country and all the guys on my team were good. I loved it. I was in Copenhagen.
CT: Living and traveling in Europe, everything is so compact. Did you take advantage of that?
DS: My first year, I didn’t. I don’t know why.
CT: Copenhagen is pretty nice on its own.
DS: It’s beautiful. It’s probably one of my favorite cities in the world. In the last two seasons, I traveled a lot more.
You’re fortunate that there’s a lot of national team breaks. I think it’s every second month so nationality players can go train with their teams. You get two weeks off and depending on what your coaches are like, you usually get a couple of days to go travel.
I’ve gotten to see a chance to see some beautiful places. I have no regrets in that regard.
CT: You also played one season in Italy?
DS: Yep. I was in a small town about half an hour outside of Austria. I was way up north in the Alps. It was a little too small for me personally. I like bigger cities. But it was cool.
CT: How did you do on your foreign languages while you were abroad?
DS: I was good actually. I dated a Danish girl so I picked up a little bit of Danish. I tried to learn as much as I could so they didn’t always have to speak English to me and it’s fun to try to learn a new language. I definitely couldn’t speak it fluently, but I could get away with a couple of broken words.
My first experience was tough because there were only two North Americans at the start of the season so the coach spoke all Danish. They would translate it for you, but you’d sit there for 10 minutes and not have a clue what they were saying.
CT: Were there things you missed from North America?
DS: I think when you get home, you want to eat at this restaurant or that one. The biggest thing for me is because my parents are getting older and are such a big part of my life, to be so far away from them and not have the opportunity to see them, it definitely hits you pretty hard at first. You’re just so far away from what you’re accustomed to.
But I was just really fortunate that I loved Denmark. Italy was good too, but I just really enjoyed being in Copenhagen. It’d be one of those places I could live one day.
CT: How was the travel there for games?
DS: It was good. Italy there were a couple of long trips. No more than seven hours. We didn’t have sleeper buses. They were all day trips and, unlike North America, you never had back-to-back games.
CT: So you have to get back into that grind here. Do you have a preferred method for passing the time?
DS: I’m a little bit older now so I probably read more books than I used to.
CT: Was it more video games before? Cards?
DS: I wasn’t really a video game guy. More movies.
CT: Do you have a preference on music?
DS: I’m pretty eclectic. I don’t like country. I’m probably one of the few hockey players who doesn’t like country. I like house music, rap, indie to a certain degree.
CT: Are you a get to a concert kind of guy?
DS: This was probably the first summer I hadn’t seen a lot of concerts in Winnipeg.
CT: Do they have a good rotation of shows?
DS: Winnipeg is great actually. The MTS Center gets a ton of bands. I was fortunate enough to see the Black Keys twice and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
CT: Are there any TV shows you try not to miss?
DS: In this day and age, it’s nice to have Netflix and that kind of things. But I’m big into “Sons of Anarchy.” I loved “Breaking Bad” while it was on. I’m trying to get into “Homeland.”