By Elizabeth Casey | Photos by Ross Dettman
When youth hockey players first hit the ice, most of them love to score goals. A handful will be intrigued with the unique equipment and challenge that goes along with goaltending, but it takes a special type of kid to see the allure in being a defenseman.
Jaime Sifers was one of those kids, although he really isn’t sure exactly why.
“I was seven or eight and was with my first travel team. We were having a team meeting and our coach asked if anybody wanted to play defense and I just raised my hand. I have no idea why,” he laughed. “I just thought it’d be cool and I literally have been playing defense ever since.”
Now in his fifth professional campaign, Sifers could give a convincing speech to any other seven-year-olds considering manning the blueline.
“There is a saying that defense wins championships and I think that’s true. Not only for defensemen, but for forwards who can play a defensive style as well,” he said. “The role of a defenseman is kind of to be the backbone of the team. You need a good defense to create an offense. It’s extremely important to have a good group of guys who know how to control a game and allow our forwards the opportunity to score goals.”
In Sifers’ case, the role of being the team’s backbone is something that extends beyond the ice, and has throughout his career. The 28-year-old native of Stratford, Conn., has been recognized as a natural leader everywhere he has played, beginning when his team at the University of Vermont took the unusual step of naming him captain as just a sophomore.
“At first, it was really tough,” he said of being named to a leadership role as a younger player. “My teammates didn’t make it tough for me, I made it tough for myself with my own expectations, trying to set the bar high and maybe trying to do too much. But all the guys were so good to me. Even though I was younger and wearing a letter, they made me feel really comfortable and I learned a lot from them. They helped me along the way when I first started out. I grew into the role and it was something I really took a lot of pride in.”
“Being a leader and captain of a team, you really just have to be there as a supporting part when the guys need you. You need to be aware of what’s going on with your team and you have to care a lot about it. It’s a ton of commitment, but it was something I really loved being a part of. It definitely prepared me for a lot of different situations on and off the ice.”
The experience of being a three-time captain in college helped groom the undrafted Sifers for the professional ranks, but the American Hockey League is a big transition from the college game for even the most mature player.
After being signed by the Toronto Marlies as a free agent at the conclusion of his senior season at Vermont in 2006, Sifers was partnered with veteran defenseman Mark Moro. The 10-year pro became something of a role model for the rookie as he learned to navigate the pro game.
“(Moro) was my defense partner and our captain my rookie year. He was in his 30’s at the time and towards the end of his career and he was just such a tough, tough defenseman,” Sifers remembered. “I really respected how he approached the game on a daily basis. He showed up to practice every day and worked hard and he put it all on the line every game. That’s definitely what I try to do every night and every day at practice. He’s someone I still think about to this day. He was a huge role model for me.”
Five seasons down the road, Sifers has evolved into a player with a reputation that sounds a lot like his description of Moro. When he arrived at the Chicago Wolves training camp this fall, he was quickly named an alternate captain, in
spite of being a new face on an experienced roster.
“We’d heard about him and the leadership he has and we saw his work ethic in training camp,” said Wolves Head Coach Don Lever. “We could tell from our first meetings with him that we wanted him to be one of the leaders in
our dressing room.
“You never have to worry about him not being ready to play the game,” Lever added. “He has a very competitive nature and that’s what you love about him. He wears everything on his sleeve and he’ll give you all he can. He’s just a super competitor.”
Little things Sifers does off the ice also haven’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“You always hear him arranging dinners somewhere on the road or inviting guys over for dinner at his house to keep guys together at home,” Lever said. “That’s just his make up, and it’s definitely one of the reasons he has an “A.”
It’s also one of the reasons Sifers was selected by the coaching staff and fan voting on chicagowolves.com as the recipient of the 2011 Tim Breslin Unsung Hero Award. The award recognizes the Wolves player who best typifies Breslin’s on-ice spirit and team-first attitude each season.
When asked about his approach to leadership, it is evident why Sifers was an obvious choice for the award.
“I like to speak up when the time is right,” he said. “You have to learn your team and what guys are like and what motivates them. At the same time, I really prefer leading by example on the ice: being there for my teammates if they need me and just being a reliable player – someone they want on the ice with them in any situation. I’d also like to think that I connect well with the younger guys and can offer them advice or a helping hand whenever they need me, and that is something I really, really enjoy.”
The defenseman has also enjoyed the company of the veteran leadership already in place on the Wolves, in particular working with captain Jason Krog.
“It wasn’t hard coming into this situation and being named a captain because there are so many great guys on this team that get along. I think it relieves a ton of pressure when you have a team like this,” Sifers said. “It all starts with Jason Krog. He’s just a great leader. Every single guy on the team looks up to him, including me.”
While he admits that the start of the season was bumpy for the Wolves, Sifers thinks the way the team has responded in the final months of the season says more about the quality of the team than the early-season stumbles.
“I think what we’re doing right now is really working well. As things have progressed, you see in the past few months everybody has just committed to the system,” he said. “Personally, as far as my quality of play, I felt like in the beginning of the year I had some ups and downs. I had an injury, and that was really tough for me because I felt like I just started getting into my groove and started playing well, and it was around that time that we were losing a lot and I just really wanted to be with the guys and try to help out, but since then, I’ve actually felt like I’ve been playing my best hockey this year.
“This has just been a great experience for me,” he continued. “I love the commitment that everybody in this organization has – from the management to the front office, everyone. I’ve never really been a part of a team that cares so much about winning and about everyone on the team. It makes it so much more fun to come to the rink every day when you have that kind of group effort.”
And group effort is just what Sifers has been seeing from his teammates of late, as the club battles for playoff position in the log-jammed West Division.
“The past few months have been unbelievable – you can look around the room and see that every single guy has laid their heart on the line for each other,” he said. “We’re trusting each other. Everybody’s doing their job and showing up to play every night. I wish we’d peaked a little earlier, it would make things easier on us here down the stretch, but I think we’re just going to keep building momentum. There’s a lot of fire in that locker room and the guys are hungry to get to the playoffs.
“This has definitely been one of the best teams I’ve ever played for and it would be a huge disappointment if we didn’t go into the postseason, because I think we can do some really amazing things.”