Patrick Sieloff could sense it coming the moment the puck was fired around the boards in the Erie Otters zone. He saw Otters forward Hayden Hodgson try to corral the puck just inside the blueline. He saw an opportunity.
“If the puck’s getting rimmed up the boards, I know that if it’s behind him he’s going to have to look down eventually or he’s going to let it go by him and we’re going to get it,” said Sieloff. “So, either way the puck’s staying in or he’s going to get hit.”
In the split second when Hodgson dropped his head, Sieloff got it – the green light to lower the boom. The check was just one of many thunderous hits the 18-year-old blueliner for the Windsor Spitfires has thrown over the course of his young career. He’s only just started to build his reputation as one of the Ontario Hockey League’s most physical players.
Even though he’s only played 13 OHL games, Sieloff’s physicality has been a revelation in a league that has become so proactive in targeting head-shots – and rightly so – that many observers suggest it has inadvertently reduced hitting altogether. Anecdotally, another byproduct is the prevalence of more players leaving themselves prone by skating with their heads down.
“That’s just the way our league is now,’ said Windsor GM Warren Rychel, who had more than 1,400 penalty minutes over a seven-year NHL career. “Any hit along the boards or big noises, there is usually a penalty. Whether that’s right or wrong I don’t know.”
Two of Sieloff’s biggest checks in the OHL – the one on Hodgson and a hit on Kitchener rookie Justin Bailey earlier in the season – have already become popular on YouTube. He was given a five-minute major for charging and a game misconduct for the hit that left Bailey with a concussion. There was no subsequent suspension.
“People are always worried about the OHL because they think they’re taking hits out of the game,” said Calgary Flames director of scouting Tod Button, who took Sieloff in the second round (42nd overall) of the 2012 NHL entry draft. “But they were both clean hits… and there was no supplemental discipline. I think as long as you’re playing within the rules then the OHL doesn’t mind the hitting. They’re just trying to take out the ones that are cheap and cause injuries.
“Patrick’s a clean hitter and he’s always been a clean hitter.”
Sieloff understands his game puts him on a tightrope. It’s a balancing act between throwing a big legal hit or a punishable one with the potential for the eight to 10-game suspensions the OHL is regularly imposing.
“I do walk that line and I do take chances,” said the native of Ann Arbor, Mich. “But then again, that’s my game. If I wasn’t walking that line I don’t think I would be the player that I am.”
So what about letting up, even just a little?
“Not at all,” said Sieloff. “It’s usually full-steam. Hockey is a game of physical play and also skill. I’m not out there to go 50-50, I’m either going 100 per cent or I’m not playing.”
The speed of the game is so fast these days, even at the junior level, that one wonders how long Sieloff can continue to stay in the OHL’s good graces. Even Rychel knows he’s one extra step or tangential arm away from seeing his prized defenceman go from player to spectator.
“Is he close? Probably as close as you can get,” said Rychel. “But he’s being doing it for four years so he’s pretty good at it. I’ve seen other hits and I’ve seen him play in the USHL and the (under-18) world championships and he has hard hits, but they’re also very clean. He doesn’t leave his feet. It’s a lost art. It’s a throwback.”
And while no one wants to see players injured, especially knowing the long-term effects of concussions, the ability to deliver a hard, legal bodycheck consistently has become something from a bygone era. It’s also what makes Sieloff so attractive as a future member of the Flames.
“I think he’s old school in that I don’t think you see as much hitting anymore,” said Button. “I think when you see minor hockey taking hitting out at certain levels, you don’t learn that so it’s not part of it until you get older. There’s a lot less hitting at the minor levels, so it’s a unique attribute that Patrick has.”
Dressed in his Spitfires track suit, the six-foot, 197-pound Sieloff isn’t an imposing presence. Shake his hand, however, and you get a sense of how opponents feel when they’re on the wrong end of a collision.
“Some of the guys he’s hitting and sending flying are much bigger than him,” said Button. “There’s a timing aspect to it.”
There’s also the mental aspect. He goes through a quick mantra, though at this point in Sieloff’s career it’s become more instinct and routine than anything else.
“The first thing I do of when I see a guy with his head down is mentally check myself and I say: ‘Hands down. Feet down,’” said Sieloff, who came to Windsor after spending the 2011-12 season in the USHL with the U.S. National Team Development Program. “When I do that I know I’m going to be fine.”
But as Sieloff has learned, not every sanction is meted out by the officials. In most cases, his hits – like the ones on Hodgson and Bailey – have drawn the ire of opponents. In today’s game, that usually means having to defend yourself.
“I do expect someone to come,” said Sieloff of having to fight after a big hit. “If they don’t that’s even better, but I know I always have to be ready for whatever happens. I do know that it’s most likely going to come, and hopefully it doesn’t and they should tip their hat to me or anyone else that makes a big hit – it’s a part of the game.”
Rychel, who started watching Sieloff in the Detroit Compuware minor midget program, knew what he was getting when he acquired the rights to the Michigan native from the Soo Greyhounds in a deal involving veteran goalie Jack Campbell. Rychel and Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner both played on the edge as NHLers, so they know exactly what Sieloff faces.
“It’s very hard,” said Rychel. “You see suspensions all the time in our league and it’s hard because both guys are moving fast and it’s whether the puck is there or not. To keep your hands down and your stick down is hard to do and he does it. “We been in instances before where our players have been suspended for making contact to the head, but thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. He knows he plays on the edge and he knows he has to watch it.”
Spitfires graduate Zack Kassian was a poster boy for questionable hits and recurring suspensions. Kassian, playing for the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C., during the NHL lockout, finished his junior career early because of a four-game ban which carried into the OHL playoffs. Still, Sieloff said he admires Kassian’s willingness to be physical – but not his lengthy rap sheet.
“He’s a guy I look up to,” said Sieloff of Kassian. “I’ve seen him on YouTube and I’ve seen him play live and he’s a guy that if I was a forward, I’d play like him. He’s a guy no one wants to play against and he’s always in your face, but he’s got skill, too.”
Sieloff admits that throwing a big check also comes with an adrenaline rush, particularly if he can see the opportunity before it presents itself.
“One thing I’ve always loved doing is hitting,” he said. “You can change the momentum of a game and it’s something that I feel that I just need to keep getting better and better at. I look a lot at (Red Wings defenceman) Nik Kronwall, he’s a guy I grew up watching in Detroit, he’s a guy that I think does it perfectly.
“If he catches a guy with his head down, he’s a game-changer.”
Just like Sieloff.