Jon Gillies certainly has the pedigree to be a top goalie, following in the skates and pads of his father, uncle and grandfather, all former college goalies. His dad, Bruce, in fact, played professionally for three years.

Jon Gillies certainly has the physical attributes to be a top goalie, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 210 pounds, with cat-quick reflexes.

Now, he is getting the on-ice education that will help make him a top goalie.

Gillies, a 17-year-old from South Portland, is playing for the Indiana Ice in the United States Hockey League, a prestigious 16-team junior league located in the Midwest. He’s living with a host family in Indianapolis, going to a demanding parochial school and learning about hockey life on the road.

“It’s really going well so far,” said Gillies in a recent phone interview. “Everyone’s been great. It’s been a great choice.”

The choice — to follow a path out of state — was not available to his father, who earned a football scholarship to the University of New Hampshire out of Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H., before a knee injury sent him to hockey full time.

“Jon’s path has not been traditional, as we know it,” said Bruce Gillies, who works with his father, Bruce Sr., at Gillies & Prittie Inc., a wholesale lumber distributor in Scarborough. “But he was raised to be very independent, to follow his own path.”

It’s a path many hockey players with Jon Gillies’ talent are beginning to follow more often.

“I think it all depends on where you live,” said Ice Coach Charlie Skjodt. “In the case of (Maine), it’s like other places where it’s hard to find Triple-A programs to get quality shots and quality competition.”

Gillies at least knows where he is heading: He has committed verbally to attend Northeastern University in Boston and play for Greg Cronin, the former UMaine assistant. To get there, he has always sought the best programs and competition.

For many years that meant traveling to Massachusetts, playing for the New England Nordiques, a Triple-A summer hockey program, and the Neponset Valley River Rats in a Tier I Select League. He left North Yarmouth Academy after his freshman year to attend the Salisbury School in Connecticut, where he repeated his freshman year academically.

At the time, said Bruce Gillies, “the initial plan was to be at Salisbury for four years, then enter Northeastern in 2013. We figured it would be a traditional prep school approach where he would pay his dues his first two years and then would have started his junior and senior years. That was the plan, at least on paper.”

QUICK PROGRESS

Along the way, though, Jon Gillies just kept getting better. After his first year at Salisbury, where he played in eight games with a .924 save percentage, he was invited to attend the U.S. Hockey national team development program’s four-day camp. After a tough first two days, he came on strong. Soon after, the Ice took him in the fifth round of the USHL futures draft.

Gillies still thought he was going back to Salisbury when the Ice invited him to training camp. He played so well they offered him a spot on the team. If he accepted, he would be the youngest goalie in the league, one of its youngest players.

“I was not expecting to make it,” Gillies said. “But they liked me and actually, as we were walking out of the rink after the final game at camp, I told my dad, ‘This is where I want to be.’“

So he is now earning honor-roll grades at Cathedral School in Indianapolis as a junior — he essentially skipped his sophomore year so he could reach Northeastern in 2012, a year preferred by the Huskies’ coaching staff.

“How he’s able to juggle everything is admirable,” said Bruce Gillies. “He misses school days, makes 600- to 800-mile bus rides and still makes the honor roll.

“I think his prep school background helps. Through all his travels and time spent in the back of a pickup truck, one of his prerequisites was to keep up his grades. He has held up his end of the deal.”

And now Jon Gillies is taking the necessary steps to play at Northeastern, and possibly beyond.

“Obviously every kid growing up wants to play in the NHL,” he said. “But I’m just trying to take it one step at a time and see how far my skills and work will take me.”

Skjodt (pronounced Scott) thinks it could be far. After a slow start, Gillies has earned a regular spot in the rotation and has won his last seven games. He has a 9-5-1 record with one shutout, a 3.05 goals-against average and .897 save percentage. His best game — a 3-1 victory at Lincoln, Neb., in which he made 33 saves — certainly opened some eyes.

“He literally was brilliant,” said Skjodt. “Even though he’s a ways away from his (NHL) draft time, scouts are coming in and paying attention to him. Every week he gets a little better.”

HOCKEY BACKGROUND

That Jon Gillies is a goalie really shouldn’t surprise anyone. His grandfather, Bruce Sr., played at Norwich University. His father, Bruce, not only played at UNH, where he is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, but in the International Hockey League where he led the Muskegon Lumberjacks to the Turner Cup championship in 1985-86 and met his future wife, Debbie. His uncle, Chris, was a goalie at Denver University.

Bruce Gillies said he never pushed Jon into the position. Instead, Jon simply took to it.

“It was my choice,” said Jon Gillies. “When I was growing up, I saw all the pictures of my dad. In fact, I have a huge poster of him in my room now. There was never anything else I wanted to do.”

He played other sports and liked lacrosse because he got to run in the field. He tried other positions on the ice, but he always got back in the crease.

His younger brother, Cameron, tried playing goal but didn’t like it. Now he’s a defenseman for the Portland Junior Pirates.

And although he just turned 17 on Jan. 22, Jon Gillies displays great maturity in the crease. Jamie Morris, the goaltending coach for the Ice, said: “It’s a DNA thing.”

Skjodt agrees.

“When your dad’s a goalie, you know,” he said. “You’re the last guy there, you can make or break a game.”

Morris said Gillies has shown great improvement since the start of the season.

“We knew he would be good, but at the beginning of the year, he was a young 16,” said Morris. “Now when he gets in there, he’s leading the way. It’s great to see him playing at this level.”

Gillies has great balance for a goalie his size. He moves laterally well. He covers a lot of space. He reads the play. He handles the puck.

Moreover, said Morris, “He’s put things in perspective. He doesn’t put pressure on himself. He’s focusing on the win and letting the stats take care of themselves.”

Gillies said he has learned to let things go. He doesn’t let the crowd bother him anymore. In Lincoln, he was being razzed not only by the fans but by the Zamboni driver, who spent much of the game chanting his name.

“It felt good to skate out of there,” he said.

ON HIS OWN

It’s not always easy being 862 miles away from your family and friends.

“Of course I miss my friends,” said Gillies. “But I was away last year, too, so you get used to it.”

That doesn’t make it easy.

“I don’t like him being gone,” said Debbie Gillies. “But that’s just a mom talking. Last year, we could get in the car and see him. Now we see him when we can.”

Gillies realizes that, which is why he appreciated it when his mother and girlfriend showed up for his 17th birthday.

“That made it a lot better,” he said.

But he knows he’s in Indianapolis for a reason, and he continues to push to get better.

“As a goalie, you know you’re the last line of defense,” said Gillies. “And if you don’t want to stop every shot, if you don’t strive to be the best player on the ice, you’re not going to succeed.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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