Providence, Rhode Island is somehow flies a little bit under the radar in terms of American hockey hotbeds. A lot of hockey talent has gone on to star for the Providence College Friars, with a good number of them graduating to the National Hockey League.
Jeff Jillson was born in North Smithfield, Rhode Island in 1980. He went on to star at Mount St. Charles high school in Woonsocket. He was a standout defenseman with hockey options that included playing junior or playing for several different schools.
Jillson, who was an excellent student, ended up going the college route, but with the University of Michigan and not Providence College. Perhaps he was trying to escape the constant comparisons to a recent NHL graduate from Woonsocket named Bryan Berard.
“I saw a few games in the junior leagues and then I saw a couple in the college leagues and figure I got the best of both worlds, (I got to) play a high level of hockey and at the same time continue my education,” Jillson told the website Hockey's Future. “The thing is at Michigan is that you get so much exposure even though it’s a college team as far as hockey goes and you can get the best of both worlds to continue to work on your game as well as continue on with your education, so it works out pretty well.”
A first round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 1999, Jillson opted to leave school in 2001 in order to give himself the best chance possible of playing in the NHL, though he did continue earning his business degree via correspondence.
Jillson would make the Sharks roster right out of training camp. Rangy defenseman Mike Rathje was starting a lengthy contract hold out while veterans Brad Stuart and Bryan Marchment had injury concerns to start the season.
Jillson, who grew up idolizing Chris Chelios, took full advantage, though it was a steep learning curve.
“What most surprised me was the fact just how fast it is,” he said. “Everyone tells you, but until you get out there and experience it and learn to adjust to the game, especially not having played a game since my last college game. Definitely the speed is something you just have to adjust to the same way as coming out of high school and adjusting to the college speed.”
Jillson was a big bodied right shooting defenseman, something that is seemingly always in short supply in the NHL. He was not afraid to use his size, either. Skating was an issue, and he, like most young defensemen, needed to learn to not force plays.
One veteran that Jillson really learned from was Gary Suter.
“I’ll just try to soak up as much information as I can and watch what he does and learn as much as I can, what a better guy to do it from,” Jillson said. “I think you learn so much from watching a guy like that. I think just by watching him you can gain just as much, and as we get to know each other a bit more things will develop.”
Ultimately Jillson's time in San Jose was short. He and Jeff Hackett were traded to Boston in 2002-03 in exchange for towering defenseman Kyle McLaren.
Jillson would only last 50 games in Boston before being move to Buffalo in a three way trade in 2003-04. He would play mostly in the minor leagues for the next two seasons, but did help the Sabres in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs.
That proved to be the end of the NHL line for Jillson. He soon packed his bags on an extended tour of Europe. He played in Germany, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.
"Hockey gave me the opportunity to travel the world. Living over there was one the highlights of my life," Jillson said.