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Sbisa Hoping to Stick

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are lucky to have Luca Sbisa. With early season injuries sidelining Randy Jones and Ryan Parent, Sbisa has moved into the Flyers’ starting six defense corps.

Traditionally, hockey defensemen take longer to mature than forwards. It’s not unusual for highly regarded blueliners to spend several seasons in the minor leagues before they settle in at the NHL level.

Sbisa, the Flyers' first-round draft choice, is just 18 years old. If he were an American, he’d still be a senior in high school!

* * *

Despite his youth and inexperience (one season with Lethbridge in the Western Hockey League), Sbisa’s expectations were high for this season.
Luca Sbisa was drafted by the Flyers in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. (Len Redkoles)

“I always had it in my mind to make the team, but I knew it would be a long shot,” Sbisa said. “I set very high goals. I always believed I could do it. When training camp started, the coaches told us that every player, no matter how old he is, had a chance.

“I just kept playing my game. Practice after practice and game after game started going better. I’m proud I reached my goal. But now I have to work even harder to reach my other goal: to stay here for the whole season.”

Flyers coach John Stevens is comfortable with Sbisa as one of the team’s rearguards.

“He plays with a lot of poise and confidence for a young player,” Stevens said. “He has a great foundation of values for a young pro. He seems like a good pro already, the way he prepares, the way he came to camp in good condition. He comes in early and does extra work. That’s usually a process that takes a year or two to teach young players.”

Stevens, a former defenseman, said that Sbisa was quickly accepted by the club’s veterans.
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“He’s a really good kid,” Stevens said. “I think the guys are fond of him. He has good team values: he plays hard for the team. He’s a physical defender. He plays with a lot of courage for a young player.”

Until training camp, assistant coach Jack McIlhargey, also a former NHL defenseman, had never seen Sbisa play.

“He has great size (6’2’’, 190 pounds) and he’s a good skater,” McIlhargey said. “He’s really impressed me with his physical play. He’s a strong kid and he finishes his checks.”

The reality that Sbisa is an NHL player struck him on opening night.

“When they introduced the players, that was a pretty special moment for me,” he recalled. “I always imagined how it would be. When it finally happened, it was just a great moment. Going out there, a packed rink, hearing my name that I was part of the Philadelphia Flyers…it was an unforgettable moment.”
Going out there, a packed rink, hearing my name that I was part of the Philadelphia Flyers…it was an unforgettable moment.” - Luca Sbisa

Sbisa’s parents, Massimo and Isabella, attended the Flyers’ first two games. He said when he first told them that he would start the season with the Flyers, they didn’t believe him. Sbisa said they thought he was joking. But when they saw him skating with the Flyers against the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, they knew he was an NHL player.

Sbisa, who turns 19 on Jan. 30, was born in Ozleri, Italy. When he was one-year-old he moved with his family to Switzerland, where his father had a business.

“None of my family played hockey until me,” he said. “They took me to a hockey game when I was about three years old. I really liked it.”

Sbisa and his sister, Chiara, now 20, took figure skating lessons. Then Luca began playing hockey in Zug, Switzerland.
Sbisa skates in his first NHL game against the New York Rangers on October 11. (Jack Cassidy)

“I went through all the stages (of hockey) until 2006-07 when I played eight games for the pro team there,” he said. “That was pretty exciting because as a little kid growing up, you always want to play for your home town team.”

The next stop for Sbisa was Lethbridge, Alberta. He was selected in the European import draft by the Lethbridge Hurricanes. “I didn’t know where it was, or what league it was in,” he said, smiling. “I didn’t know I was getting drafted. They saw me playing with the Swiss national team in an under-17 tournament in Calgary.

“I had to make the decision pretty quick. It’s always been my dream to play over here. You have to take a risk to get a reward. The chances to get drafted (by an NHL team) are way better over here.”

In Switzerland, Sbisa followed the NHL. “I had a collection of videos: nicest goals and hits, that kind of stuff,” he said. His favorite NHL player is Mats Sundin.

Until Sbisa was 15, he played forward. “If we had injuries, the coaches would put me on defense,” he said. “When I was one of the older players, I’d play forward. But when I got to the junior hockey age group (16 and older), the coaches asked where I wanted to play and I told them more as a defender.”

Stevens said Sbisa will be evaluated, as all Flyers are, periodically. “We want to do what’s best for Luca and the team,” Stevens said.

Right now, what’s best for the Flyers is Sbisa playing defense for them.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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