|Luca Sbisa of the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes is currently ranked twelfth among North American defensemen for the 2008 Entry Draft.
For elite teenage hockey players in Canada, the drafts for the three Canadian Hockey League circuits -- the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League -- are the first taste of big-time hockey.
Those drafts represent the chance for the player to compete for a position at the highest junior level in hockey-mad Canada. That time can be as exciting as the NHL Entry Draft for those involved. It can be a time of celebration or disappointment; a time of reward, of change, and of excitement.
For Swiss-born Luca Sbisa
, taken No. 69 out of the 72 skaters selected in the CHL’s annual Import Draft -- the draft for non-North American players -- it was nothing more than one heck of a nice surprise.
“I didn’t even know that I got drafted,” Sbisa said. “My agent found out on the Internet and told me.”
Once he was informed he had been selected by the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, Sbisa had a difficult choice to make. He could continue playing in Switzerland, or he could move across the ocean, across most of a continent, to a tiny town in Alberta known as much for its cattle and wheat production as for its hockey players.
Being the fourth-to-last selection of the draft gave him reservations about his chances of succeeding in the new league. But for a young Swiss hockey player who always dreamed of playing in the NHL, it seemed like a necessary risk.
“We thought about it, and I guess the dream was always for me to come to play in Canada,” he said. “So I spoke with guys who had done it, Yannick Weber
in the OHL, and some others, and they told me good stuff about it.”
With the encouragement of his peers, he only needed his family on board to seal the deal; something he wasn’t worried about because the family knew how important hockey had become to him.
“My family and I made the decision together and it was almost an easy one to make because I thought it was the best for my development,” he said. “If you do something, do it right. You don’t do it half way.”
Looking back on it now, his decision looks pretty good. He sits atop the defenseman scoring table in the 2008 WHL playoffs with 15 points in 19 outings. That came after putting up 33 points during the regular season and becoming a go-to guy for the Hurricanes, WHL Championship runner-up.
Sbisa’s decision was further validated when NHL Central Scouting released its final rankings and Sbisa appeared as the No. 12-ranked North American skater available for the 2008 Entry Draft.
But there was a time -- between the realization he had been drafted to his first ice session in Lethbridge -- that Sbisa didn’t know the right path. He simply had to have faith in his abilities, trust the scouts who championed him, and believe in his peers, who, in turn, believed in him.
“I had heard so many good things about this league, but I didn’t know how I would fit, and how I would play compared to other guys,” he said. “But after the camp and exhibition (season), I got a good feel how to play hockey here. From there, I was pretty much into it. I was surprised at times, but it felt good.”
The defenseman likely surprised himself, and more than a few others in the building watching his first game as a member of the Hurricanes, when he started the season with a three-assist performance in his first WHL game. He earned the game’s first star and never looked back.
“The first game gave me a lot of confidence, tried to carry through the whole season, moments I lost it but I wanted to keep the game simple,” he said.
Was he surprised at his early success? Maybe. But he wasn’t about to doubt it. Instead, he tried to use it as a confidence booster, an opportunity for him to learn and to get better.
Sbisa took the advice he received from Weber, his countryman, when he was pondering his future. Weber’s advice was simple: Play your game, your way, and to let the results speak for themselves.
“He just told me to come over here and come here with confidence, don’t be afraid or scared to make mistakes,” Sbisa said. “He gave me little tips, too. How to play on the smaller ice and some other stuff.”
His success was also a validation for the family who supported his love of hockey and his decision to move to western Canada to pursue his dream. That’s good because the family has nobody but itself to blame for Sbisa’s love affair with the sport.
"If you do something, do it right. You don’t do it half way." -- Luca Sbisa
“I got into hockey when I was like four years old, my parents took me to a hockey game, and shortly after I knew I wanted to play hockey,” he said. “So they put me in a hockey school, and I went to all the teams in my hometown, and eventually made the first team.”
From there, his love of the NHL and his desire to one day compete as a member of the League grew out of a semi-complete collection of VHS tapes.
“I didn’t watch the games because they weren’t on TV, but I bought a couple videos of the NHL highlights – videos about Wayne Gretzky
, some of the hardest hits and nice goals, and watched those videos many times,” he said.
But it was not a defenseman that Sbisa most admired in those early days, watching tapes of the league he eventually wanted to join. Despite Sbisa’s obvious ability as a defender, his hero was one of the most-decorated European forwards ever to lace up the skates.
“The Maple Leafs are my favorite team, and Mats Sundin
is my favorite player,” Sbisa says. “He was the first player I knew from the NHL, so he became an idol for me. The first NHL jersey my parents gave me was from Mats Sundin
From meager beginnings as a hockey-mad kid rooting for Sundin, Sbisa has become one of the most sought-afters player in the 2008 Entry Draft, a draft silly with defensemen.
His inclusion in the top 30 would’ve been a feat, in and of itself; but at No. 12 he is almost guaranteed to go in the first round of one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, a testament to his ability and his hard work.
Now, Sbisa just wants to enjoy -- in person and in real time -- all the excitement that comes with draft day.
“I think it doesn’t really matter what team you get picked from, every team will give you the opportunity to play in the NHL. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But it would be nice to play for the Leafs.”