A three-hour road trip and a family-filled surprise made Wednesday night at the Centrium a little more special for one Red Deer Rebels player.
Forty family and friends of defenceman Ethan Sakowich made the trip from Athabasca, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, to watch the Rebels play the Edmonton Oil Kings.
It was a surprise for his mother’s 50th birthday, although Sakowich seemed to think it wasn’t all that much of a surprise.
“I think she knew,” he said with a slight indication that a little mother’s intuition tipped her off.
Despite his mother solving the game shrouded in mystery, the defenceman said his family loved the experience and he was happy to hit the ice in front of them.
“They enjoyed themselves and it was nice to see everyone,” he said.
Beyond a four-game stretch before Christmas, there hasn’t been much to be happy about with the way the season has gone for the Rebels and Sakowich this year.
After playing a big role last season and getting into 61 games followed by a trip to Boston Bruins rookie camp, it was expected that the six-foot-one, 188-pound defender would play big-time minutes for the club.
Instead, Sakowich has just two assists and is minus-six in 35 games. That’s a long way from the player that led Alberta Midget Hockey League defenceman in points with 32 back in 2015-2016.
While offence is not expected to be the biggest part of his game, his struggles were a mix of over-complication and trying to do too much in the first half.
“Definitely need to be more consistent, get back to where my game was last year. Stick to being a simple player, being a physical and a good teammate. Just keep it simple,” said Sakowich.
“I feel like if I get back to being a simple hockey player I’ll get back to being successful.”
Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt said that was a problem for most of their roster in the first half and believes Sakowich understands the adjustments that need to be made.
“As a defenceman, your job is to defend, move the puck and make good decisions,” Truitt said. “The bottom line is simple is better and that’s what we’ve asked.”
There’s a lot that a young defenceman needs to learn in a hurry at the WHL level and despite being a veteran with almost 100 games played in the league, Sakowich still has plenty to pick up, said Truitt.
“It’s two-fold. Being a hard defender, and puck management,” Truitt added.
“The defensive zone coverage is key. You have to be able to do those jobs and when you get an opportunity to make a hit or pin a guy you have to do that. You can’t be a guider. You’ve got to be a physical presence. When you do have the puck, make the easy play. Sometimes the glass is your best friend and you have to use the glass to alleviate pressure.”
Truitt added that as a quick learner and devout teammate, the 18-year-old needs to only fine-tune his play and will quickly find himself at the level he was last year when he was a go-to defender for the Rebels in the playoffs.
“We see signs of his game improving,” Truitt said.
“We’re expecting guys like him to step up and get more impactful within the game. There’s no denying his character. He’s one of the guys on the bench talking and helping guys out and making them accountable. He’s an astute guy, he knows he hasn’t had a great first half and he’s working to get better.”