TRURO, N.S. – As a kid, Zach Sill would hound his older brother Bobby for days on end to lace up the blades and skate with him on an outdoor rink near their Birch Hill home.
Stepping out into freezing cold temperatures, the duo would make the 500-metre trek to Mrs. Johnson’s pond regularly during the winter months with their gear and a heavy, welded-steel net – made by their father, Grant – in tow.
Sure, getting there wasn’t much fun, admits Sill, but once on the ice, passion took over. Any hint of regret the pair had, quickly faded. The two would spend hours slapping, passing, shooting and scoring on the frozen surface.
“Once you got out there it was so much fun,” Sill told the Truro Daily News this week. “You’d freeze the whole time trying to get ready and then once you got out there it was all worth it, you know.”
On Saturday, Sill will come full circle in hockey. Again, he’ll suit up for an outdoor game, though not at Mrs. Johnson’s. This time, it’s at Hersheypark Stadium in Pennsylvania for the American Hockey League’s Capital Bluecross Outdoor Classic.
Sill is an alternate captain for the Hershey Bears, who will host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for the outdoor game, beginning at 8 p.m. Atlantic time.
It will be Sill’s second professional outdoor game. He played in 2013 in Hershey as a member of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Penguins won that contest 2-1 in overtime in front of more than 17,000 fans.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Sill said of Saturday’s tilt. “You’re outside, you’re freezing cold, you get that cold air in your face, your eyes are watering, and then you actually get to play for points; you’re playing for something other than bragging rights over your brother. It’s pretty cool.”
Sill, 29, has been living a dream as a pro hockey player for the past nine years. The hard-nosed centre is an AHL veteran who has appeared in 93 NHL games, between Pittsburgh, Toronto and Washington. He last played at the highest level during the 2015-16 season when he dressed for 10 games with the Capitals.
Sill, who last summer built a house in Brookfield, is currently in the second year of a two-year, two-way contract with the Capitals and has spent the past three seasons with their AHL affiliate in Hershey. He prides himself on being a leader and a good teammate, while playing an honest, physical style that has made him a fan-favourite. He is also one of the Bears’ top penalty killers, and although he hasn’t fought this season, the six-foot, 215-pound forward has never been shy about dropping the mitts during his career.
In 40 games this season, Sill has three goals and seven assists.
“Siller’s been one of my favourite players,” said Bears fourth-year head coach Troy Mann. “Just a heart and soul type of player and one of our leaders. He’s a great penalty killer, a momentum changer type of player and just one of those good role players that brings it every day; you know he’s going to bring his work ethic on a game to game basis.”
A road less travelled
Sill’s journey to pro hockey is one of a road less travelled. He played major midget in Cole Harbour, before skating in the junior A ranks for the Truro Bearcats. He had a short NCAA stint with the Maine Black Bears, and later played two seasons for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL before turning pro in 2009 with the AHL’s Penguins. He played his first NHL game on Nov. 16, 2013 for Pittsburgh. He scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 21, 2015 against Chicago's Corey Crawford.
“I never imagined this in my life,” Sill said of his career path. “It was crazy. I went the school route because I didn’t think that I had an opportunity to play professional; I thought I’d just get my education and be done with it … but everything just fell in place. It took me five years to get my first NHL game and I just kind of kept going with it ... I’ve just been able to stick.”
Sill’s immediate focus is on helping the Bears earn a playoff spot. The team has hovered around the .500 mark most of the season and currently sits in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, but just three points behind the Charlotte Checkers for the fourth and final post-season berth.
Sill still strives to play at the top level of professional hockey and return to the NHL. He fully understands it will be no easy feat, but he plans to continue chasing the dream of exchanging body checks with the world’s strongest players.
“I still think that I can be there so I haven’t given up on playing in the NHL,” he said. “You know what I really want, is to play in the playoffs up there. I still think I can play in the NHL and I’m going to keep trying to get there, that’s for sure.”