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Small-town prospect hits the big city with Flyers

Flyers draft Travis Sanheim in the first round of the NHL draft.

Travis Sanheim. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
Travis Sanheim. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more

IT WAS LATE last October when Mike Moore realized he might have a special project lurking on his blue line in lanky defenseman Travis Sanheim.

That's when Moore, general manager of the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen, said something clicked in Sanheim. A still unknown commodity, Sanheim had sat as a healthy scratch in four different games that month.

"He decided that he was sick of it, he'd had enough time watching," Moore told the Daily News. "He was really hit or miss the first few months of the season. It's a tough league. He was good and bad. There is a real learning curve. I think the healthy scratches motivated him to be better."

When Sanheim returned to the lineup, Moore noticed a confident defender yearning to rush the puck. Sanheim used his wheels to turn the heads of scouts at Scotiabank Saddledome, where his Hitmen share the same arena as the NHL's Flames.

Last fall, the small town Manitoba boy was just praying to crack the Hitmen roster. Last night, he walked up the stairs to the Wells Fargo Center podium and pulled on a Flyers jersey with the approval of a big city.

The Flyers went a little off-the-board to select Sanheim, the 53rd-ranked North American skater, with the 17th overall pick.

Highly touted prospects such as defenseman Tony DeAngelo and forwards Alex Tuch and Kasperi Kapanen were still available when the Flyers picked.

One calendar year ago, Sanheim was finishing up his season in Manitoba midget hockey - not even ready to make the jump to the Manitoba junior circuit. He closed this season as by far the quickest rising commodity in the 2014 NHL draft.

"We feel we got the best player with the most upside," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said, after thanking the raucous 19,000 on-hand for their 'unwavering support.' "His path is one that is very intriguing."

Sanheim hails from Elkton, Manitoba (population: 461).

The small hockey world, turns out, is even smaller. Hextall, a Manitoba native, has a slight family connection to Sanheim. According to Sanheim, the Flyers' newest GM is related to his mother's stepbrother. That didn't have anything to do with the Flyers' reasoning for drafting him, Hextall said with a laugh.

Through his Manitoba connections -and with the help of top WHL scout Mark Greig and crosscheckers who swooped through the league - Hextall did have plenty of eyes on Sanheim.

One of Hextall's confidants, Brandon Wheat Kings owner and GM Kelly McCrimmon, coached against Sanheim this season and saw him 2 years ago. McCrimmon is the younger brother of the late former Flyer Brad McCrimmon.

"I like this pick," McCrimmon told the Daily News. "This has Mark Greig's fingerprints all over it. He is the player who rocketed up draft lists in the second half of the year. He's a very good kid, a small town kid and a well-spoken guy."

Moore, the Hitmen general manager, said he perked up when Sanheim began to take the puck off the boards at the point and drag the puck toward the middle of the ice with confidence and ease to get pucks toward the net.

Subsequently, Sanheim's point total began to quickly rise. He finished with 29 points (24 assists) in 67 games with Calgary. Sanheim's stock in the NHL draft took off when he ended up being Canada's best defenseman at the Under-18 World Championships in Finland. He netted five points (all assists) in six games.

Sanheim said he models his game after former Flames player Jay Bouwmeester - who has long been linked the Flyers in trade rumors over the years.

"The Flyers are getting a guy who is taking off," Moore said. "He is very intelligent. He has terrific vision. He's very good in his own end. He finished high school by Christmas last season so he could focus on hockey-and you saw what that did for his second half of the year."

Calgary drafted Sanheim late in the WHL's bantam draft a few years back. He has a twin brother, Taylor, who also plays junior hockey in Manitoba. Both Taylor and Travis Sanheim were 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds a few years ago. Travis sprouted to 6-foot-3 to earn a look from the Hitmen.

Even Sanheim, according to Moore, was "taken aback by how fast and furious" his rise to last night's crescendo happened. Sanheim interviewed with all 30 NHL teams-a rare feat that not even the top overall picks enjoyed this year in a relatively thin draft year.

The late bloomer was ranked as the eight-best prospect by TSN analyst Craig Button before the draft.

"It's kind of crazy, the last year," Sanheim said. "I was playing midget hockey and not even thinking about the draft. I was just trying to crack the Calgary roster. Then I started to get my confidence. I started to see my name in the rankings and I felt good about myself, I knew I was doing stuff right."

In Sanheim, the Flyers now have a fearsome cupboard full of top defensive prospects, including Shayne Gostisbehere (3rd round), Robert Hagg (2nd round) and fellow first rounder Samuel Morin, who was picked last season at 11th overall out of Rimouski in Quebec.

Hextall, like Sixers counterpart Sam Hinkie, clearly has a plan in place for the future of the Flyers' blue line. They have not developed a homegrown defenseman in more than a decade - a fact that is hard to believe.

"That's the picture," Hextall said. "We all have to remember now that they're prospects. They have a lot of work to do to get to the NHL. [Player development coach] Kjell Samuelsson might as well get a place in Calgary this year."

After officially exploding onto the scene in front of a very happy building, Sanheim knows he has a long way to go before hearing his name cheered in the Wells Fargo Center again. Where he's come from, last night was an unimaginable accomplishment.

"I interviewed with the Flyers yesterday and I knew they were extremely interested in me," Sanheim said. "You could feel the passion in the building. I was a little nervous, I could hardly stand when I was picked. To be in the building and have that support right away was amazing."

Slap shots

Ron Hextall said the Flyers "tried a number of different things" when asked if he attempted to pry the No. 1 overall pick from Florida . . . The draft will conclude with Rounds 2-7 this morning at Wells Fargo Center beginning at 10 o'clock . . . Sewell's Tony DeAngelo, available on the board when the Flyers picked at No. 17, was selected by Tampa Bay two slots later . . . Kasperi Kapanen, the son of former Flyer Sami Kapanen, was nabbed by the rival Penguins at 22nd overall . . . Brendan Lemieux, son of all-time NHL pest Claude Lemieux, did not have his name called and will have to wait until today.