Brian Sipotz made an unexpectedly successful transition from college to pro hockey last season with the AHL Chicago Wolves. The Atlanta Thrashers fourth round pick from 2001 gained and kept a roster spot on what became an all-star defensive corps.
The soft-spoken player talked about his good year during 2005 Atlanta Thrashers training camp.
“Yeah, I was pretty pleased with my year last year, coming out of college where I didn’t have too many points. I don’t feel like I had a whole lot of success in college. I was given an opportunity last year and skating with a great group of guys like that and great coach, I just took it and played my way into the lineup.“
The 6’7 250lb stay-at-home blueliner had the best plus/minus amongst Thrashers prospects during the regular season at +6. While he had just eight points in the regular season and three in the playoffs, his previous career-high had been only three points as a senior for Miami University in 2003-04.
Asked to explain his offensive explosion, he laughed and said “I don’t know, I just started getting pucks through. A lot of my assists were just rebound goals that the forwards took care of. The guys did a good job of getting in front of the net. My goals were all from the point, so I credit that a lot to my teammates.”
Humble also about the tools he possesses, the very focused Sipotz attributed his easy transition to mental preparation.
“I think I went in there with the right attitude. I knew it was going to be a transition and I just kind of watched and learned for the first couple games and then tried to do stuff on my own. I just picked it up slowly and away we went.”
Thrashers GM Don Waddell had a different explanation for why Sipotz did so well.
“First of all he really takes care of himself unbelievably well. He’s committed to it and he can skate, and if you know the game, you can play a lot of levels. He was a surprise, but not a total surprise, because we knew with his skill level that he could skate. What he could do with it, that’s what we weren’t sure of.”
Turning pro at almost 23, Sipotz did have a bit of an age and maturity advantage over other rookies. Still, he wasn’t an instant success. Having not found a place on Wolves head coach John Anderson’s roster early on, he was sent down to the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators for some extra playing time in early November. The boost of playing top minutes was just the thing to get him going.
“[Coach Anderson] did a good job of it,” Sipotz said of getting sent down. “He said we only had one game that week and they told me I wasn’t going to be playing, so they just wanted me to come down and play a couple games. It was a good experience, I felt like I played pretty well in Gwinnett and it just gave me a little bit more confidence coming back up to know that I could skate with the puck and I could distribute the puck more. I think it was pretty positive.”
His return to Chicago proved to be the turnaround point of his season. Sipotz came back clicking, and kept his roster spot the rest of the season.
The biggest adjustment for him was the sheer number of games in pro hockey. It was the longest season of his career, playing 93 total games, compared to just 36 last season. But because of his good conditioning, it was mentally, not physically that he was tired.
“Games 70-80 were pretty tough mentally even though we had a good position going in and weren’t really in a battle. But then it’s pretty easy to turn it on for the playoffs.”
Sipotz played alongside fellow 23-year-old Tim Wedderburn most of the year, which proved to be a very successful pairing.
“I thought we worked great together,” Sipotz said. “We kind of stuck together after the first 15 games, and ended up being great because we’re both pretty defensive players and we pick up each other’s slack.”
They were even teased in the locker room late in the year as the pairings changed and they were still together. They were the old married couple, and “stuck on you.”
Being in the Calder Cup finals was new territory for him, having not had postseason success at Miami, but he was in great company when he got there. The Wolves finished first in the league on defense in the postseason, holding opponents to just 1.78 goals per game. Sipotz lavished praise on the group.
“Yeah, not only defense but goaltending as well. [Kari] Lehtonen in the net really helps keep the goals against down — he’s unbelievable. With the guys we had back there, Joe Corvo with a couple years of NHL experience, Jay Bouwmeester, Travis Roche, just a great group of guys. Braydon Coburn, another first round player. So, Tim and I almost felt like for a while that we were real fortunate to be with that group of guys. It was humbling to say the least.”
Solid defensively and offensively gifted, the squad was not a terribly physical. Sipotz himself had a remarkably low number of penalty minutes for any blueliner, let alone a stay-at-homer his size, with just 31 in the regular season and six in the playoffs. He said he wasn’t as physical as he wanted to be, and explained why.
“For the first part of the year, making the adjustment, getting used to the speed of guys, I didn’t want to step in to try and make a big hit and let some little slippery guy get around me. But that’s something I can work on more this year. It’s all just a learning process, learning what you can get away with and learn about yourself as a player and knowing what you can do out there. I think I can step it up a little bit this year.”
Beginning the year as one who would almost solely opt to clear the puck hard off the glass, he found his passing game later in the year as he developed chemistry with teammates.
“Off the glass and out is always a safe play in my mind,” he explained. “I’d rather have someone else battle for the puck up there than have me cough it up in the zone. But yeah, you start playing with lines and you know where guys are going to be, and our forwards were dependable like that. You could give them a pass in a tight space and they could get out of it. Again, a credit to the forwards.”
Sipotz agreed that being with players who could get open and finish allowed him to be more of an all-around player. “I hadn’t played with a whole team full of those guys before,” he said.
His parents, located in South Bend, Indiana only an hour and a half from the suburban Chicago arena, were able to come to almost every weekend game. They were lucky that the Thrashers farm club played near their house, but also lucky that it was hockey that he ended up playing, instead of rowing crew, which he excelled at in high school.
“Yeah, I don’t really get to do it much anymore, but I rowed in high school and had college opportunities with that. But it’s something that has kind of fallen by the wayside now because of hockey. I do it for some cardio conditioning, but other than that, it’s pretty much passed.”
Coming out of high school, if hockey didn’t work out, he would have pursued scholarships for crew.
“I never really wanted to make my parents pay for college so, whatever was going to work out for that (laughing), I would have gone with.”
He did get the hockey scholarship to Miami, and Waddell described Sipotz’s college days there as time spent ‘in the doghouse.’ Sipotz explained what his situation was.
“It’s not that I was in trouble or anything like that, it’s just that I didn’t get the playing time. Definitely not as much playing time as I got last year. Our coach had other guys that he went with all the time, and a lot of that is part of my confidence too, when you don’t get that much ice time, when you do get on you want to do something special. I’ve improved as a player so much over the last year. You know, I might agree that in college that I shouldn’t have gotten the ice time, because I wasn’t the player that I was last year. So I just feel fortunate for the opportunity that I had in Chicago, and I definitely learned from it.”
Sipotz’s contribution to the team was better than expected for a rookie, but he does have more work to do to refine his game to get to the NHL, the most important being stickhandling. He sees the physical aspect as an area for improvement as well.
“I think the biggest part is playing with an edge, being chippy and using my size to my advantage. I feel like last year I wasn’t an intimidating big guy at all, but I think this year if I can be a little bit more chippy, use my stick a little bit more, use my hands a little bit more, I can create even more space for myself and be able to be an even better player all around.”
Sipotz donned a Thrashers sweater for the first time on Saturday night in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He’ll play top minutes in Chicago again this year and hopes to be an injury call-up to the big club.
“They’re pretty full up here right now, but if I can set myself up here to be the No. 1 guy coming up, then that’s great,” he said. “My ultimate goal would be to stay here, but if that can’t happen because of the numbers, then I’d like to set myself up to be the first or second one coming up.”
It’s early in the process, but the Thrashers will be hoping he’s knocking on the door next fall.
“He still has steps in front of him,” Waddell said. “But he’s got a pretty good drive and commitment to try to get there.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.