PHILADELPHIA -- This time a year ago, Travis Sanheim was going to bed safe in the comfort of his status as a member of the mighty AAA Midget Yellowhead Chiefs. On Saturday morning -- Sunday at the latest -- he'll wake up with a new jersey draped over his hotel room furniture. New York Rangers or Winnipeg Jets or Montreal Canadiens or Florida Panthers or any one of 30 teams. Goodbye Elkhorn, hello NHL. Knocking the smile off Sanheim's square-jawed and very lightly whiskered (a nicer way of saying peach-fuzzed) face is understandably impossible these days.
"I was just hoping to make Calgary's roster this year. I never imagined this could all happen," said the 18-year-old Sanheim, born and raised in Elkhorn and chosen by the Calgary Hitmen in the ninth round (177th overall) of the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft.
Very few people outside of Manitoba hockey circles had ever heard of Sanheim prior to this season. The circle has since widened but after this weekend, anyone and everyone who watches hockey with more than a passing interest will know who the smooth blue-liner is and which NHL team has taken a bet on his future.
'Coming from a small town like Elkhorn with a population of 500 this is pretty unreal. It's happened fast and it's been a lot of fun and I can't wait for Friday'
"I've watched Travis play for a while now and I won't say I saw this coming but he's always been a smart player and a competitive player," said Brandon Wheat Kings owner/GM/coach Kelly McCrimmon. "He's a good player and I sure think he's going to be a good NHL player. It's real nice story. He comes from a strong family with good values. Good people."
Small kids often learn to play the game differently, with more emphasis on smarts and effort. On the occasion when tiny turns into extra large, look out -- it can create a super-charge effect.
Sanheim, now a lanky 6-3 and 189 pounds, was always undersized. So he worked harder than the other kids and learned to see the ice so he could move the puck quicker than the lugs could chase him down. Then he started to grow and went from unknown to shooting star, almost overnight.
Sanheim has moved up from a Central Scouting mid-term domestic skater ranking of 167th to a final position of 53rd. But the Elkhorn native will almost surely go in the first round and as perhaps high as the top 25 at the NHL Draft Friday night.
Think about that. In one year, Sanheim will have gone from being a skinny defenceman with the Yellowhead Chiefs in Manitoba's AAA midget league to pulling on an NHL jersey as a first-round selection.
"I compare him at the same age to Ryan McDonagh. He's a strong skater with excellent hockey sense and as his confidence has grown so has his game," said TSN draft expert Craig Button. "He's going to go in the first round and somebody's going to get a real good player. There's not a lot of bite to his game but he's a very intelligent player and he's competitive. He doesn't get pushed out of games. He just got better with each passing game with Calgary this year. He had two coming out parties, first in the WHL playoffs with the Hitmen and then with Canada's under-18 team at the championship in Finland. He's opened a lot of eyes."
Forgive the 18-year-old Sanheim if he needs to catch his breath, but it's been a whirlwind of a year. First he cracks the Hitmen lineup, then he plays for Canada at the under-18s, then he's named to Canada's world junior training camp roster and this weekend he'll join an NHL organization.
"Coming from a small town like Elkhorn with a population of 500 this is pretty unreal. It's happened fast and it's been a lot of fun and I can't wait for Friday," said Sanheim, who travelled to Philadelphia on Wednesday with his twin brother Taylor and parents Kent and Shelly. "This is just the draft and just another step. I've got lots of work to do and I really want to get stronger and continue to improve as a player. But this is still pretty awesome to get to be a part of and to share with my family and folks back home."
For parents and siblings, a trip to the draft is an important touchstone. Most parents introduce their kids to hockey hoping they'll develop a love for the game. Dreaming of the NHL is one thing but banking on it is simply foolish.
"I played a lot of hockey but not at a high level. I just wanted the boys to like the game," said Kent. "They were competitive with one another right away. It's a small town and there's not a lot to do. But hockey has been great for both the boys. We're proud of them."
Travis and Taylor did most everything together, from working on the family farm to going to school to playing hockey.
"I went to the school one day for a parent/teacher interview and the teacher started out saying they were good boys and they were doing well in school but they were too compeitive with one another and maybe it was something we could try to steer them away from," said Shelly. "Well, being competitive isn't something you change. But the one thing I'm proud of is that as hard as they tried to beat one another, they also supported one another. Always."
That trend continues today as Travis says he's happy his brother could make the trip and be with him as his hockey journey takes such a dramatic turn. Taylor, who played the 2013-14 season with the Dauphin Kings and Portage Terriers in the MJHL, wants big days of his own but the fact his brother is getting his first isn't cause for jealousy.
"Travis has worked very hard for this moment. I'm glad to be here and can't wait to hear his name called. This is his time. Maybe mine will come later and I'll let that worry about itself," he said. "But right now, getting to hear my brother's name at the NHL draft, that's real special. I'm very happy for him."