Travis Sanheim, over the past two years, has gone from being the quintessential kid who could use an extra year of minor hockey to helping Canada capture a medal at the world under-18 championship.
The latter might not have happened without the former. The certitude that the 6-foot-3, 181-pound Sanheim exhibited last month at the U18s, where he was effective in all three zones, owed to spending that extra winter back home with the Yellowhead Chiefs. The Elkhorn, Man., native was do-it-all defenceman on a team that punched above its weight in the Manitoba AAA midget ranks.
"The best thing for me was to go back and play lots and play in all situations," says Sanheim, who is No. 53 on NHL Central Scouting's final domestic rankings but is likely going to be a late first or second-round pick in June. "If I was playing for Calgary as a 16-year-old, they had a really good team last year, and I probably would have been in and out of the lineup. I used the time to get stronger and faster, to come back to Calgary and jump into a key role.
"We had a bunch of returning guys and a bunch of guys from my community, two sets of twins on the team including me and my brother [Taylor Sanheim]," Travis Sanheim adds. "We finished second on our side and had a chance to win every game, never got blown out. To come back and be a leader on a team that contended was really good."
Sanheim worked his way into Calgary's rotation on the blueline as the season progressed, earning an increased workload when captain Jaynen Rissling went down for five weeks in December and January.
"It just took off from there," Sanheim says. "Once we got to Christmas, I was playing a lot more and with each game, I felt a lot more comfortable carrying the puck and jumping into the rush offensively and that’s when I’m at my best, when I’m doing that and creating offence."
Sanheim tallied five goals, 29 points and was plus-25 across 67 games for Calgary. After the Hitmen were bounced in the first round by the Kootenay Ice and top NHL draft prospect Sam Reinhart, he got the chance to play in the U18, where he once again discovered his comfort zone. He credits Hockey Canada's emphasis on having a longer camp before the U18 team jets to Europe for helping him figure out his place.
"For me personally, the big thing was that we spent four days in Toronto practising and getting to know the guys and getting to know what the coaches wanted," says Sanheim, whose U18 mates included Calgary teammates Ben Thomas and Jake Virtanen. "When we got over to Finland we had a pretty good idea of what they wanted. That made it a lot easier ... I was able to jump into a key role right from the get-go and get a lot of ice time."
1. You have to have your own identity, but whom in the NHL do you really watch closely?
"A guy I’ve been told I play like is Jay Bouwmeester. A guy who skates really well and is a good puck-moving defenceman."
2. How much did you gain growing up from being a twin whose brother also has hockey ambitions? (Travis Sanheim debuted in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League this season, playing nine games for the Dauphin Kings.)
"We push ourselves to be better. This year was the first year we were split apart. He pushed me and I pushed him and I definitely wouldn’t be the player I am without him."
3. You're from Westman and so is Calgary's director of player personnel, Dan Bonar; how did that help with you working toward a goal of breaking into the WHL?
"Never talked to Calgary at all before the bantam draft. After the draft, Dan was the guy I talked to the most. He watched me and made sure I was on a good path to make the Calgary Hitmen. It was good. I talked to him about him once the week. Just went over things to make sure I was improving and getting the key minutes and that my relationship with the coaching staff was going well."
4. Outside of immediate family, who is one person you credit most for helping you get this far in hockey?
"Garth Mitchell from Elkhorn. He’s a guy that I talk to regularly. He coached me for a year in midget and he’s now coaching the Virden Oil Capitals in the Junior A league in Manitoba. I can always lean on him for advice."
5. Who has been the most challenging forward you have faced in the WHL?
"I'd have to go with Reinhart. He was the smartest player I've ever played against, just the plays he makes."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.