A dozen hockey players, ages 17 to 22, happily hammer through their off-season workout routine. They quickly maneuver between barbell racks, resistance band exercises and dynamic stretching. It’s an unusually wet and muggy day in Regina, which means the air inside Level 10 Fitness is even thicker.
The clanging of weights, the constant chatter and healthy competition is a welcomed return to normalcy for the Sillinger brothers — even though experiencing all of these elements together, in their hometown of Regina, is anything but.
“This is the longest I’ve been with my family since I left to play junior hockey four years ago,” said 22-year-old Owen Sillinger.
Owen, Lukas, 19, and Cole, 17, haven’t been at home this long as a trio since they were young kids. But just as the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their fledgling hockey careers, so did it bring the Sillinger family together.
The journey home
The off-season began early and with great disappointment for the three brothers.
Owen was completing his sophomore season at Bemidji State in Minnesota, Lukas was in his final season with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, and in Medicine Hat, Alta., Cole was having a fantastic rookie year with the Tigers of the WHL.
That’s when the long and winding journey began for the siblings, as well as their parents, Karla and Mike, who were at their winter home in Phoenix, Ariz., when the pandemic set in.
“My wife, she said once they close Disneyland, we’re out of here,” Mike recalled.
By the time they hit the road, they had received word their sons were being sent home, too.
Bemidji State was preparing for its WCHA semi-final series. With a win, the Beavers would all but lock up a spot in the NCAA Hockey Tournament. But all of it ended just before the first game was set to begin in mid-March.
“We got a phone call later that afternoon when all the guys were going out for lunch and they said, “Sorry, guys, and everything is shutting down,” said Owen.
In Penticton, B.C., the Vees had their season cancelled as a part of Hockey Canada’s decision to end all hockey on March 12.
Meanwhile in Medicine Hat, the WHL postponed its season that same day before officially cancelling on March 18.
Riding out the pandemic
When all five Sillingers converged at home in Regina, they had to quarantine together for two weeks, then ride out the pandemic. It meant adjustments on many levels.
“At the start they weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, and when the seasons were cancelled you can see you start butting heads, you know, getting a little restless,” Mike said.
Everything is a competition for the brothers: working out, golf, video games and, of course, hockey.
“There’s a few fights here and there, but mom always seems to break those up,” Lukas said with a wry grin.
“Sometimes I get in there and I start butting heads, too, and I start turning her cranks and teasing and whatnot,” Mike said with a laugh.
“So, she kind of keeps us all under control.”
Mike refers to Karla as the “true hero” in the family, not only for her United Nations-level peacekeeping efforts but also for her cooking. Her and Mike have had to contend with the sticker shock of feeding three male athletes who train daily. It’s given them a greater appreciation for billet family’s financial needs.
From zooming on the ice to Zoom workouts
With the boys’ seasons abruptly coming to an end, there was an itch to get back to training faster than usual. They would typically head to Level 10 to begin the process of getting back on the ice. But, like the rest of us, Owen, Lukas and Cole were confined to their house.
That’s where video hockey training came in.
“We’d all be in our basement and just kind of we’d have the camera on or Zoom and just do the jumping squatting and kind of lunges, bodyweight stuff,” explained Cole.
It’s not just the Sillingers that are at the elite level of hockey in Regina. The city is home to more than a dozen players in their age group who are playing either junior or college hockey. This group all work out together at Level 10, giving the Sillinger brothers a good push from peers.
Leaning on each other
Having elite level hockey playing siblings to lean on, a father who had an accomplished NHL career and a mom who runs the household has been the Sillinger boys’ biggest assets.
“They make it so easy just to kind of you know lean on them if I need something or if they need something,” said Owen.
Lukas pointed out that having a dad with Mike’s experience in the NHL lends itself to lots of tips. Mike had a long and winding 17-year career in the league, covering 15 teams. If there is anything that has happened in hockey, it has happened to Mike, and as a parent, he has passed on a lot of that advice.
This has allowed Owen, Lukas and Cole to carve out their own hockey-playing path.
“I think what you have to do as parents is give them their options and being involved in hockey for many years you know I had the resources to give them their best options,” Mike said.
Season in doubt
Being that resource may be more important now than ever before, as his sons prepare for what could be the most important season of their young hockey careers — one that is facing so much uncertainty.
The National Hockey League will resume the 2019-20 season on Aug. 1, but other levels of hockey are still in limbo for the upcoming season.
The extended off-season has been extra hard on Cole. He was named to play for Team Canada at the annual Hlinka Gretzky Cup international summer tournament. It is a showcase for the top U-18 players in the world. The majority of the players would be draft eligible in 2021 and Cole is potentially one of the top forwards for Canada.
“It’s a tough opportunity. Any time you get recognized to play for Team Canada, you want to put on a jersey and actually be a part of the event,” Cole said.
“You see many things are getting cancelled right now. I think it’s just the way the world’s gone.”
Lukas plans to join Owen for his first season at Bemidji State after a great career with Penticton. He will have the added pressure of being a fulltime student and a NCAA hockey player.
“Going to school and practising each and every day is gonna be an adjustment, but I’m really looking forward to it,” Lukas said.
In less than a month, they were set to make their way back to Minnesota, but there is some doubt creeping in as word is still out on the NCAA.
“I’m not really kind of sure how it’s going to handle itself,” said Owen.
The trio is taking things the whole situation in stride, considering.
“For myself, and even Lukas and O, we train as hard as we can in the summer, you know, all summer and it doesn’t really matter to me when the season is going to start,” Cole said. “I just know me personally and my goal is to just be in the best shape and work on the things I need to work on so I can be the best player I can be for when the season does start.”
The work the three of them put in now could pay dividends in their hockey future.
With the NHL draft looming next spring and the potential of being a day-one draft pick, there has already been a lot of praise heaped on Cole. The young forward isn’t feeling any of the effects of what is ahead.
“Obviously I want to get drafted: that’s the end goal,” Cole said. “I want to be a high pick and being a first-rounder is my goal.”
The same could be said for Owen. Entering his third season at Bemidji State means his collegiate career will soon be behind him and the potential for a pro career lies ahead.
“I really don’t want to look too far ahead; I kind of want to enjoy where I’m at,” Owen said.
Mike is now retired and one of his favourite things is travelling with Karla to watch his sons play hockey. He knows there is nothing anyone can do with the unpredictability of the pandemic and its effect on the upcoming season.
“As parents we just say, ‘You control what you can control.'”