When defenceman Travis Sanheim’s name comes up in a conversation, which has been more often than not as of late, the term special frequently follows.
It’s no different in and around the Calgary Hitmen dressing room.
“Travis is a dynamic and special player,” said good friend and fellow veteran rearguard Colby Harmsworth, who has eaten plenty of big minutes playing alongside Sanheim for the past two-plus seasons. “He is a guy that we as a team definitely rely on.”
First-year Hitmen assistant coach Trent Whitfield, who is in charge of this year’s defence core, couldn’t agree more.
“He’s a special player who works extremely hard at his game, and is a very driven kid who is always eager to get on the ice,” Whitfield said. “Travis is every coach’s dream, really.”
High praise for a ninth round (177th overall) pick in the 2011 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft who will be the first to admit he wasn’t sure that he could even play in this league.
“It was something I always wanted to do while growing up, but never thought I could actually make it until after my draft year,” Sanheim said. “To be honest, even after being selected by the Hitmen I wasn’t sure, but I was given a great opportunity here and I have tried to make the most of it. Ever since then, it has been about improving and developing.”
Having topped all WHL rearguards with 65 points in 67 games during the 2014-15 campaign, the six-foot-four, 199-pound Sanheim could very well repeat that feat this season.
Off to a blistering start – finding the scoresheet in all but one outing this season – the Elkhorn, Manitoba native has recorded a team-leading 12 points and a plus-seven rating over the first seven games.
Earlier this month, the 19-year-old banked his 100th career WHL point on the road in Regina.
Fittingly, he reached the century mark on what has become a routine Sanheim play – jumping up to join the rush, driving full steam towards the net, and then putting on a nifty finishing touch.
“He’s a big body that can skate and make plays,” Whitfield said. “As important as he is to us defensively, he is just as impressive offensively. But that’s the luxury of having a player like Travis. He’s a kid that wants to dictate the game and do everything he can to help his team win.”
The Philadelphia Flyers appreciate the same qualities in Sanheim, which is why they were willing to utilize their 17th overall selection on him at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (NHL Central Scouting had ranked him 53rd).
It appears, for Sanheim, the best is yet to come.
“Travis is a good young defenceman and we love him as a prospect,” stated Flyers GM Ron Hextall after reassigning Sanheim to Calgary in late September. “Hopefully he goes back and has a great year in Calgary. Hopefully he plays World Juniors and then comes in (next) September as a better player, more equipped for the pro level and ready to tackle a long pro career.”
Upon returning to their respective junior teams after attending pro camp, there tends to be a readjustment period for some players with NHL pedigree, which Sanheim certainly has.
“With Travis, there hasn’t been that step back,” Hitmen head coach Mark French said. “His game has been nothing less than impressive since returning and he has been invested in what we’re trying to do here as a team, which is really nice to see.”
“For sure, it can be tough to readjust to the pace when first coming back,” Sanheim said. “Luckily, it hasn’t affected me too much. When I first came back I tried to keep everything as simple as possible on the ice and now I’m just trying to play my style of game.”
As “special” as that style of game has been for the Hitmen, obviously no player in junior – or at any level of hockey for that matter – can play a flawless one.
“He can sometimes get caught up in the emotions of the game and he wants to try to accomplish everything in one shift,” Whitfield said. “But it’s hard to pull a horse like that back, and as much as you want to let him go and give him the freedom to create offence, in the best interests for both the hockey club and Travis we need him to scale it back a bit because he’s our last line of defence.”
For Sanheim, according to Whitfield, it’s about balancing and perfecting his timing.
“Travis could easily go out every shift and play keep away, but he won’t become a better player by doing that,” he said.
The student agrees.
“There are times when I have the puck that I just want to keep skating with it, so now it’s about learning when to pick my spots,” Sanheim said. “I’m still learning when to make those decisions, but I think as an offensive-minded defenceman you are always trying to pick your spots and trying to figure out your timing of when to go and when to pass the puck and stay back.”
Remembering the sting of disappointment he felt when being among the final cuts made from last year’s Canadian world junior team, Sanheim is out to prove to Hockey Canada that he can be a trusted, go-to player at this year’s under-20 tournament in Helsinki.
“To be honest, it’s been on the back of my mind since I was cut,” Sanheim said. “It’s a team that most Canadian kids grow up dream about playing for, and it’s definitely a goal of mine, but at the same time I have other things to focus on before that happens. Right now, I’m focused on helping the Calgary Hitmen win hockey games.”
Whitfield, who experienced precisely what Sanheim covets after capturing gold with Canada’s ‘Drive for Five’ team in 1997, said his protégé will need to prove that his defensive presence will be there when it matters most.
“They will be looking for a defenceman who doesn’t try to do too much, one that can move the puck up to the forwards and play a solid defensive game,” he said.
“The hype is there, and good for him because he deserves it. It’s good for him to experience those types of pressure situations, but it’s also important for our coaching staff to help him through all that. Our job is to reel him back and have him take his time and focus on the small things. If he does all that, there should be no stopping him. He will get where he wants to be.”
Harmsworth believes, as do many pundits, that his teammate is a shoo-in for the Canadian Junior Team because of his unlimited potential at both ends of the ice.
“In my opinion, there isn’t a better junior defenceman out there. There isn’t a guy in this room that I would complain about playing with, but,” Harsmworth said, “Travis is pretty special.”