STONE HARBOR, N.J. -- Travis Sanheim had just emerged from a tug of war on a paddleboard and a kayak race on the waters of the back bays in this New Jersey beach town. They followed a long morning of running on the beach and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.
However, it would have taken a serious storm to blow the smile off his face.
The Philadelphia Flyers' 2014 first-round pick (No. 17) knows he is now light years away from where he was a year ago.
"I was playing midget hockey [last year], sitting on the couch watching the [NHL] draft," Sanheim said. "Just dreaming and hoping I could walk up on that stage, and for it to be a year later is pretty crazy."
Sanheim had a rocket-fueled ascent through the scouting community last season, rising from obscure Western Hockey League rookie with the Calgary Hitmen to first-round NHL draft pick.
He started slowly in the opening half of the season, with one goal, seven assists and a plus-8 rating in his first 32 games. Despite average numbers, his talent was noticeable to those who watched closely. But it wasn't there all the time, in part because he wasn't strong enough to handle the competition he was facing.
"In exhibition games he showed a ton of things early, that he could be productive offensively," Calgary assistant coach Brent Kisio said. "He was one of our best players through the exhibition season. Then once the season started all the regular guys came back from NHL camps and strength became an issue for him. Once they got back he couldn't do some things he was doing in exhibition season. So for the first half of the year he spent a ton of time in the gym and he got stronger.
"He's always had the skill. For him, his natural body is a little skinnier. Once that caught up, he was a heck of a player for us."
The stronger Sanheim got, the more it showed on the ice. And it didn't take long for scouts to start noticing.
Two games after the December holiday break ended, he went on a three-game goal-scoring streak which helped earn him an invitation to the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Then he had five assists in a Feb. 17 game against the Red Deer Rebels.
"If guys didn't have their heads turned then they did at that point," Kisio said. "Then they were in our building almost every night trying to figure it out."
NHL scouts might have been slow to catch on, but for Sanheim things started getting good in a hurry. He had four goals, 21 points and a plus-17 rating in his final 35 games.
"I felt like I gained my confidence in the league and with that comes doing more things with the puck," he said. "For me to be successful I feel I need to play an offensive game, jump up in the rush and create offense, and I felt like I was doing that in the second half."
Calgary went out in the first round of the WHL playoffs but Sanheim's season continued when he got to play for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Finland. In seven games he had six assists and a plus-5 rating, and in the process erased any doubts that he was first-round material.
"Obviously you didn't want to lose in the first round with Calgary, but when one door closes another one opens," Sanheim said. "It was a great opportunity for me over in Finland. The coaches right away gave me a pretty key role on the hockey team, I was playing all situations. I felt like I took advantage of that opportunity and I made the most of it, and I was pretty successful over there."
The Flyers were one of many teams that moved Sanheim far up their pre-draft list after that tournament in April.
"He was a kid presented with an opportunity and he took advantage of that opportunity that was given to him," Flyers director of scouting Chris Pryor said. "He did well for himself. He put himself on the map, and maybe for some people who didn't know him that well, now they got a chance to see him. And for the guys who saw him, it substantiated what they already saw."
What the Flyers saw was a raw but talented 6-foot-3 defenseman with offensive skill and a frame capable of supporting more than the 181 pounds it currently holds.
"He's 6-3, that's the good part," said Kjell Samuelsson, who works in the Flyers' player development department. "He has some frame to put muscles on. You can see he has the passing, the fundamentals. He just has to get a little better in all of them. ... I like what I see in him."
The Flyers will take a patient approach, so Sanheim will return to Calgary for a second season and also have a chance to play for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship; he was one of 12 defensemen invited to a summer junior evaluation camp in Montreal in early August.
After flying under the radar most of last season in Calgary, Kisio said Sanheim will be counted on to play a major role with the Hitmen this season.
Sanheim is looking forward to assuming that responsibility.
"Coming from midget, not too many people knew who you were," he said. "It'll definitely be a big change this season but I'm ready for the challenge."