From small town to the NHL Sanheim’s hockey dream has come true
January 25, 2018, 9:55 am
Like most small town kids on the prairies, Elkhorn’s Travis Sanheim has had a pair of skates strapped onto his feet since he was four years old. And like many young kids growing up playing hockey in small town rinks, Sanheim wanted to be an NHL player one day.
Today, in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Flyers, Sanheim can say that hockey dream has come true.
The 21-year-old defenseman has played 34 games with the Flyers, earning a goal and four assists so far in his inaugural season.
“As a young kid right from the get go, whenever anybody asked what I wanted to do when I grew up I instantly told them I wanted to play in the NHL,” says Sanheim. “As a young kid that has been a dream of mine and in my mindset since my early years of playing hockey. It was something that early on I wanted to do, and I had a mindset of doing it, and I think it didn’t really come to reality until a little bit later on when I started to play Junior and started to realize that maybe it is a possibility.”
Sanheim says he “didn’t have any other plan made,” and it’s a good thing he didn’t, because from his earliest days on skates at the Elkhorn rink he eventually rose through the ranks to reach the NHL.
“When I first started to play I was four or five years old. I think I started skating at around three. I was on the ice early,” he says.
“Growing up all the way through until through my Bantam years I didn’t play Triple A until Midget, so I played Elkhorn House League up until the end of Bantam and then once Midget started I played for the Yellowhead Chiefs, which was just a regional team for us.”
Two people in Elkhorn were Sanheim’s influences—his dad and Dennis Kyle.
“My dad actually coached me until about Peewee. He was the assistant coach and we had another guy that helped out as well,” says Sanheim. “The other guy was Dennis Kyle. I played with his son and he is one of my close friends that I have grown up with my whole life. He coached me all the way through my minor hockey with my dad.
“We had a really good team growing up. We had a lot of good young players that wanted be out there and wanted to get better, and think that was the biggest thing is that we didn’t need to be pushed to be out there—we all wanted to be out there. We were eager to play, and they just helped guide us along through this process and made us the players that we grew up to be.”
Like all kids who want to aspire to hockey greatness one day, Sanheim had his pro hockey idols as well.
“Growing up there was obviously defencemen in the NHL like Nicklas Lidstrom and guys like Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith that I watched growing up that I wanted to emulate in my game. As a really young kid I remember driving into Brandon just to watch the Wheat Kings play. You always idolized those guys. I wanted to play Junior hockey and then play in the Western Hockey League, and lucky enough I was able to do that.”
Sanheim played two seasons with the regional Yellowhead Midget AAA Chiefs before joining the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL as a 17-year-old. He played three seasons with the Hitmen.
He was also part of Canada West at the 2013 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. In 2014 Sanheim led all defensemen in scoring at the 2014 IIHF World U18 Championships where he helped Canada win bronze. He also played for Canada in the 2016 World Junior Ice Hockey championships.
In 2014, he was a first-round draft pick, 17th overall, of the Philadelphia Flyers.
He played his first full pro hockey season in 2016-17, accumulating 10 goals and 37 points in 76 games for the AHL’s Leigh Valley Phantoms, the top affiliate of the Flyers.
“It’s been a long process and a long journey but I’ve loved every step of the way,” says Sanheim.
“I think something that has gotten me to where I am today is how much I love the game. I was determined and I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up and I think I just had that mindset that nobody was going to stop me. I was going to get there, I was going to find a way and then just work hard every day to try to get to that position.
“I’ve obviously had bumps along the way and certain situations that haven’t gone the way I wanted them to, but I think I’ve just come back more motivated and worked even harder to try and push through the areas that I was struggling with.”
This season, Sanheim went to the Flyers training camp bound and determined to make the roster.
“It was my fourth training camp this season. Last year I played in the American League and was able to learn some valuable pro lessons down there and round out my game. And I think coming into camp this year I was ready to make the team. I was focused, and in my mind I was coming to make the team. And until somebody told me otherwise that was my goal. I think just right from the get go I was focused and determined to make sure that I won that battle to stay on the team.”
What did the Flyers see that they liked?
“They just liked my overall game, that I was able to contribute to both ends, and I scored a few goals in the pre season as well and just overall was playing some good hockey. I think that just goes to my summer training as well, and how hard I worked leading up to camp.”
Sanheim stepped onto his first NHL ice on October 5 during a road game against the LA Kings.
What is it like for a young hockey player stepping on the ice to play his first NHL game?
“The first few shifts are definitely a little overwhelming,” he says. “There are a lot of emotions going through your head, just the excitement of realizing that you know you made it. All that work you put in your entire life, you finally get to enjoy it and just go out there and do what you’ve been doing your whole life and play the game you love, and play it at the highest level.”
Sanheim says it takes time for a new NHLer to get over the glow.
“My first game I would say pretty well halfway through the game during those shifts I was going out there for, you still can’t believe that you’re in the NHL and you’re lining up against guys you grew up idolizing and watching. And now you’ve got to go and battle and compete against these guys.
“I think there was a lot of nerves early on. And now that I’ve played a few games and we’re half way through the season, I’ve started to settle down and it is starting to come a lot easier. It’s just like any other league. When I first stepped in I was nervous in the beginning, and then you start to settle in and find your own game, and it’s just like anything else, you’re going out to play just like anywhere.”
Sanheim says he’s glad he got the year of pro hockey in the year before to help him adjust to the pace of playing at that level.
“Playing pro the year before I was able to play against men, and coming from Junior I wasn’t able to do that there. So playing against men the year before definitely helped me come into the season.
“But in saying that, the NHL is just another step forward. The guys are that much quicker with their plays and they’re just so much smarter. They can read plays and you’ve just got to be focused every shift that you step on the ice. Because you know if you make one mistake, these guys are so good in this league that they will make you pay for it.”
Sanheim says it takes some time to adjust to everything about the NHL.
“I think early on, the first probably 10 to 15 games, you are playing in new rinks and against different teams. I remember one game, it was my second game, it was in Nashville, and it was their home opener and obviously they had just lost in the Stanley Cup finals so they had their banner raising for the Western Conference Finals. The place is just going off with how crazy the fans were.
“I remember sitting there shaking pretty well with how the crowd was, and my first two shifts felt like the fastest hockey I’ve ever played in my life. Once the first 10 minutes go by you kind of settle in, but definitely early on it is kind of like a wow factor, you can’t believe some of the skill sets and how fast it is in this league.”
As a new player in the league, Sanheim says his goal is to keep on learning.
“I’m still trying to learn every day and get better every day,” he says. It is a process, especially as a young D-man in this league. I think every day I’m getting better and better. Just practicing against Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and guys of that skill level, it’s hard not to get better when you’re playing one-on-ones against those guys and practicing. It just makes you that much better for the games.
“Over the course of the season I’d say that there’s definitely been progress and hopefully towards the second half I can make the other jump forward.
“I’m much more confident than early on. I think now I’m more confident with my playing ability. When I get the puck it feels like maybe I have a little bit more time to make plays and read the ice and play the game I want to play out there.
“Every day you go into work, you just want to continue to help this team win. You don’t really have an indication of what’s ahead of you. Which is kind of a good thing. It makes you work every day.”
Sanheim says his parents and his community continue to enthusiastically support his success.
“My whole career my family has been supportive, whether it’s my siblings or playing with my brother (Taylor) all the way up into junior. My sisters as well have been just as supportive. My family tries to come and watch. When I played in Winnipeg, not only them but pretty much my whole community was there. I think there were 50 or 60 people coming from Elkhorn to the game in Winnipeg, if not more.
“My parents try and come down here as often as they can. I think they’ve already caught six to eight games which is pretty good considering how many games we’ve played this year.
“Growing up they’ve all been supportive. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of those guys, whether it’s driving me to games or buying me hockey equipment and all the sacrifices they’ve all made.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to play at this level. I went home for Christmas and just seeing people there and how happy and supportive those guys are is great. They can’t believe that somebody from their local town’s playing in the NHL. You kind of got the whole town support and it has been awesome.
“It doesn’t happen that often that a kid from that small of a town makes it to the big leagues. Especially in the big cities, speaking with some of the other guys, I don’t know if they really know exactly where I’m from and how small my town actually is.”