Blake Siebenaler somehow found his way into hockey while growing up in the land of Hoosiers.
While the OHL's American cohort has steadily increased, the promising Niagara IceDogs puck-moving defenceman recalls that being a hockey player made him a novelty while he was growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It turns out that his father, a former college football player, saw it as a better contact sport for his children.
"My dad [Robert Siebenaler] used to coach football and at one point, one of his players played hockey," says Siebenaler, whom NHL Central Scouting Service sees as a later-rounds pick in the 2014 draft. "He was interested in it and decided he wanted his kids to do it. He actually played college football a bit. I'm surprising he didn't want us playing football. But he was pretty interested in hockey and away we went.
"Hockey wasn't big around Indiana," adds the 6-foot-½, 192-pound Siebenaler, who had strong NCAA Division I interest before signing with rebuilding Niagara in August. "Nobody really played. I was the only kid in my high school who played. Making the move was pretty big. People thought it was a pretty big deal, it wasn't something usual."
Siebenaler, who played forward for much of his formative years, played for the Cleveland Jr. Barons during his minor midget year and shifted to Detroit Belle Tire last season. With Niagara having suffered heavy losses over the past two seasons, he was able to come to an OHL team with a lot of available minutes.
Siebenaler has two goals and 12 assists for 14 points through 26 games for Niagara, which has two other Central Scouting-ranked defencemen in sophomore Aaron Haydon and Russian newcomer Aleksandar Mikulovich, who competed for Russia in the Subway Super Series. While Siebenaler is getting adjusted to the pace of major junior, he has shown some two-way capability.
"He's been a nice surprise for us," IceDogs coach-GM Marty Willamson says. "I saw him in the summer, kind of wanted to get him here. We thought we were losing him to NCAA. He made the commitment. He's been a forward who transitioned back to defence about two years ago. I thought he had a forward's mentality, but we've found the opposite. He's been really good defensively. He's picked his times [to join offensive rushes]. As his confidence keeps growing, we've got a pretty good hockey player there."
Siebenaler reportedly had interest from the University of Michigan. Choosing the OHL was a choice he and his parents, Julie and Robert, made after deep consideration.
"It's the best league to come to if you want to go to the NHL," Blake says. "It's a big decision for me, this is the place to be."
1. In your mind, what is one specific element of your game where you really need to show improvement by the end of the season?
"Playing more defensive. That's something that's still a learning process. There's a learning process with a new league. Hopefully I can work on it and get stronger in my D zone."
2. Which NHL player do you watch closely?
"I actually liked watching Nick Lidstrom when he played. Not really shape my game around, but he was someone I really looked up to. He was a solid defenceman who could distribute the puck."
3. Outside of immediate family, who is one person whom you credit most for helping you reach this point?
"Brett Merl. He was one of my billet dads and did a lot for me with workouts and skating. He is someone in my life who I hope I always have in my lie. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be there. He billeted me in Cleveland and then moved up to Detroit to do it there."
4. St. Catharines is a border town, but what are the adjustments to being in Canada after growing up in the U.S.?
"I thought it was going to be the same as America. I didn't think it would be that much of a change. But I started noticing the little difference. School is different. Gallons of milk, you don't have that here, and instead of miles per hours, it's kilometres. The difference is better than I thought would be."
5. Athletes have to learn to eat clean, but what's your go-to when you get a craving?
"Nutella. I'm a big Nutella guy. It's not the healthiest thing but I like some once in a while."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.