As he was walking out the door on his last day at Oxford High School in 2015, one of Josh Norris’ teachers urged him to “go follow your dreams.”
The 18-year-old is doing just that these days with a stick in his hands, skates on his feet and his eyes fixed squarely on the puck.
Norris has been playing hockey at the international and collegiate levels, and he’s looking forward to someday getting his shot at hoisting the famed Stanley Cup.
“I don’t think there’s any dream that’s too big,” he said. “If you work hard and stay focused, I think you’ll get what you want in the end.”
Earlier this month, Norris, a freshman member of the University of Michigan hockey squad, played in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York as part of the U.S. National Junior Team.
Featuring the world’s best male players under the age of 20, the tournament consists of teams from 10 countries playing 31 games over a 10-day period.
“(It was) definitely a huge honor to be in that,” Norris said.
The U.S. team won five games and lost two.
Ultimately, the U.S. won the bronze medal by beating the Czech Republic 9-3.
Norris noted finishing third “isn’t necessarily what we wanted, but it’s better than nothing,” especially when facing such an elite group of international players.
“The skill level’s pretty high,” he said.
With the tournament over, Norris is back in Ann Arbor, skating as a forward for the Wolverines. In the 23 games he’s played since Oct. 6, Norris has tallied 16 points (8 goals and 8 assists).
Michigan currently has an overall record of 12-12-2 and is 7-9-2 in conference play.
Despite being “a pretty young team” with a new coach, Norris said the Wolverines have “really come together as a group” lately, winning four of the last six games.
Just prior to starting at Michigan, Norris was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the first round (19th overall) of the 2017 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft.
He’s looking forward to hopefully enjoying a lengthy career in the pros that includes winning a Stanley Cup.
“My whole life I’ve been a winner (in hockey),” Norris said. “I don’t see why I can’t win when I go (to the NHL).”
“He has the skill set, I think, to play at the next level,” said Dwayne Norris, his father.
But skills alone aren’t enough to make it in the pros, according to Dwayne, who played professional hockey for 15 years. He said a player must also be able to cope “psychologically” and deal with “the ups and downs that come with being a next-level athlete.”
“Those are the things that a lot of kids have a tough time with,” he said.
Fortunately, Dwayne believes his son has “the intangibles,” such as “mental capacity, determination and work ethic,” to make it.
Exactly when Norris will get his shot at the big leagues is up to the Sharks.
“They can sign me whenever they want, whenever they think I’m ready,” Norris said.
“They have three years to sign Josh,” Dwayne explained. “If they don’t sign him at the end of the third year, then he can become a free agent.”
But signing doesn’t automatically mean Norris will be coming to Detroit to take on the Red Wings in Little Caesars Arena.
“Ninety-eight percent of all kids, they’re spending time in the farm system. It’s about when you’re ready,” Dwayne explained. “Spending time in the farm system, in a lot of ways, helps you grow as a player . . . It’s a grind down there. Those guys are working (for) that shot.”
For now, Norris is in no hurry to leave U-M.
“I know it’s a huge accomplishment (getting drafted by an NHL team), but there’s still a lot of work left to be done,” he said. “I’m still just focusing on Michigan right now. I’m not really worried about (going to the pros). That will take care of itself – however long that takes.”
As for the secret to his success on the ice, Norris didn’t mind sharing it.
“I don’t think there’s any secret to it,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you want something, you go out and get it. You work hard.”
It’s hard for Norris to imagine his life without hockey, not only because it’s his passion, but because it’s all he’s ever really known.
He started skating and playing around the age of 2, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, Warren Norris, who also played professionally for a number of years.
“I was raised in a hockey family,” he said.
During his four-year career at Michigan State University, Dwayne had 105 goals and 113 assists for a total of 218 points. He’s ranked seventh in career goals and tied for seventh in career points.
Dwayne then played professional hockey from 1992 to 2007. His career included the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, both NHL teams, plus two pro hockey teams in Germany, the Cologne Sharks and Frankfurt Lions.
Dwayne skated his way to a silver medal with Canada’s team in the 1994 Winter Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway.
As can be expected, Dwayne has loomed large in son’s life and career.
“He’s definitely had a big influence on me,” Norris said.
Norris credits his father with helping him develop a strong “work ethic and character,” and teaching him to “always be a good teammate.”
His father actually coached him when he played for the Oakland Junior Grizzlies Hockey Club’s 12U, 14U and 16U teams.
“He was always pretty hard on me and expected a lot out of me,” Norris said. “At the end of the day, that made me a better player and a better person. I don’t have any complaints.”
“I really have to thank him for everything,” he noted.
Norris gives a lot of credit to his mother, Traci Norris, as well.
“She’s always been behind the scenes,” he said. “Whenever I needed something, I could lean on her. She’s always been there for me.”
Norris recalled how she would often get up early to drive him to tournaments and practices.
“I really appreciate her,” he said.
Helping Norris develop and mature as a player over the years were his brothers Coale, 20, a freshman who plays hockey for Ferris State University, and Dalton, a sophomore at OHS who plays for the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies on a U16 team.
“They’ve been a huge part of my life,” Norris said. “We’re very close to each other.”
On the outdoor rink their father built for them, the Norris brothers spent many hours squaring off against each other, sharpening their skills, nurturing their competitive spirit and just having fun.
“We’re all great players and we’re all at different stages of our careers,” he said.
Norris got to play against Coale when U-M faced Ferris State at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor on Nov. 2-3. The Wolverines won the first game 7-2, but the Bulldogs came back and claimed a 3-2 overtime win in game two.
“It was definitely a really cool experience,” Norris said.
“It’s pretty surreal to watch the boys play at this level,” said Dwayne, who finds it very “satisfying and gratifying” to see how hard his sons work and their willingness to continually sacrifice to become better and better.
“You’re only as good as your game and consistency is everything,” Dwayne noted. “Don’t be satisfied with being a freshman. Be satisfied with (being) a freshman that’s challenging other players – sophomores, juniors and seniors – for ice time and positioning. You’ve got to have that attitude.”
Looking back over his hockey career so far, Norris believes his best moment on the ice came last year when he and Team USA captured the gold in the IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship in Slovakia. In seven games, he tallied 7 points (3 goals and 4 assists).
That team played together for two years in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program based in Plymouth, according to Norris, so everybody was really close.
And that, to him, is one of the best things about hockey – the “lifelong friendships that you make.”