The Spring 2010 issue of Fine Lifestyles Regina, for which I’m the editor, is just around the corner. In honour of that, here’s my cover story from the Winter issue, which featured former NHL player Mike Sillinger.
Mike Sillinger holds the National Hockey League record for playing with the most teams—12 in all. He was traded nine times, another record.
All of which means that in 17 years as a professional hockey player, he moved around—a lot.
In fact, the list of teams he played for after being drafted from the Regina Pats by the Detroit Red Wings back in 1990 sounds like that old Geoff Mack song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
Mike could sing, “I’ve been to Detroit, Anaheim, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Florida, Ottawa, Columbus, Phoenix, St. Louis, Nashville, New York…I’ve been everywhere, man!”
When he retired in August, Mike could easily have moved back to any of those places—or, indeed, anywhere at all. It says something about both him and Regina that he and his family chose instead to come back here.
“We had a taste of living on the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, in the desert, the Midwest, but we never got a chance to dig our heels really good into any of those places,” says Mike’s wife, Karla, who, like Mike, was born and raised here.
“The last five years we were tossing the idea back and forth, ‘Where were we going to end up?’” But, she says, “We’d come home in the summertime and it seemed we were happiest here.
“A great place to raise a family”
“It’s a great place to grow up and a great place to raise a family,” she adds, and that’s an important consideration, since the Sillingers have three boys, Owen, 12, Lukas, nine, and Cole, six.
The boys have wanted to come back to Regina in the winter ever since the family spent Christmas here in 2004—made possible because of the NHL lockout that year. “The kids loved it,” Mike says. “They’d never seen Regina with snow. This is what they’ve asked for every year, and they have it now!”
All three boys are now enjoying their first full year at Jack MacKenzie School, and (of course) playing hockey. “Owen plays Tier 1 Pee Wee, Lukas plays Tier 1 Atom, and Cole thinks he should play both,” Mike says with a laugh.
Mike and Karla, of course, have seen plenty of snow in Regina, having both grown up in the city’s north end.
They met while Mike was playing for the Regina Pats, recording three consecutive seasons as the Pats’ top scorer. “I was thumbing through the newspaper, and was intrigued by this hockey player,” Karla says. “We met through a mutual friend, and I said, ‘This is the guy I’m going to marry.’ That’s how it happened.”
But although she might have been thinking marriage right from the beginning, Mike wasn’t. “I thought she was a beautiful girl and we got along, but that’s not what was on my mind at age 17 or 18 years old, while I was playing with the Pats,” he says. “It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I went and played in the Detroit organization, and we had a long-distance relationship, that I think I realized I had a good girl back in Regina. The following year we got engaged.”
They were married in 1994, and even though they only made it back to Regina during the summers for the next few years, they bought their first home in the city in 1997. They’ve had one ever since.
“We lived in a home in the summer time for 10 years in Westhill, then we bought a home in Lakeridge and owned it for two years,” Mike says. Now they’re in Windsor Park. “We thought we’d try the East End. This end of town I really enjoy.”
Injuries end career
Still, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d return to Regina at the end of Mike’s career. The way his career ended influenced things.
Mike’s final team was the New York Islanders; he played the 1,000th game of his NHL Career with the Islanders against the Tampa Bay Lighting on November 1, 2007, his family joining him on the ice for a special pre-gamer ceremony. But that season was cut short by a hip injury that required surgery in February, 2008. The following season, he had further hip problems, undergoing surgery again last February and missing the rest of the season. On August 26, he announced his retirement.
It was a “difficult way” to end his career, Mike says, and helped him make up his mind to get out of New York. “While I was having my last surgery, Karla and I decided, ‘Let’s put the house up for sale’—in the worst possible market ever.” Despite the poor market, the house sold by June, and Mike and Karla headed for Regina.
Not only would Mike have felt awkward remaining in New York after the way his career ended, they’d never felt comfortable there. “New York was a big change,” he remembers. “We’ve always enjoyed living in the Midwest. Easy going, easy living, no rush, no hustle. We always envisioned ourselves living in a Columbus or Saint Louis. It reminded us of back home.”
But instead of just moving someplace that reminded them of “back home,” they actually moved back home
“Everyone thought we were crazy,” Mike admits. “But when I have buddies come to town and take them up to my place at Pasqua Lake, they’re in awe. They never envisioned a place like that so close to Regina. They just think it is beautiful.”
“It may seem glamorous to have lived in all of those places, but we can never call any of those places home,” is how Karla puts it. “It’s a comfortable feeling when you can go to the grocery store and wave at people…You take for granted the friendliness that you’re accustomed to when you come back to small city like this.
“We’ve been in some cutthroat places, where you don’t get the please and thank you…some really stressful places,” she continues. “They’re great to be in for a bit, but we have three kids involved in hockey, we’ll be involved in minor hockey for a lot of years. You take for granted here that you don’t have to travel for half an hour or an hour and take a flight to a hockey tournament.”
Mike’s new job
That’s not to say that all the travel has ended for Mike—far from it. Almost immediately upon his retirement, he took on a new job as director of player development for the Edmonton Oilers.
“I probably travel the same amount as if I were playing the game,” he says, noting he’d just come back from Sweden. “It takes up a lot of my weekends. My job is, I’m in charge of the drafted players in the organization. They range anywhere from 18 to 22, 23 years old. A lot of college kids. I have good reads on these players, and I have to mentor them, teach them how to be an ultimate pro. I’m a player who’s been there, done that, been in all different situations.
“There’s such a variety of them,” he goes on. “My main focus is the 22 or 25 players who are going to be top prospects. There’s such a small window of opportunity for these players to make it. After I was drafted I didn’t know what I was doing, good or bad. Fortunately I had lots of great teammates.
“It’s my job to be these guys’ mentor and follow them along. Our scouting staff still watches these guys, but I want to make sure they have the opportunity to make it to the National Hockey League. If you’re drafted into the organization, you’re drafted for a reason.”
Mike didn’t expect to go straight to work after retiring. “I never planned to do anything,” he says. “I was just going to kick back. When the Oilers approached me—and I retired and I had this job all within a week—I had people call me from the media, saying, ‘I thought you weren’t going to do anything!’
“And I wasn’t! I was going to hang out in Regina and coach my kids’ hockey and watch them grow. But when this opportunity presented itself, Karla and I both thought that if I was to pass it up and it was November and December, we’d be wondering what the Oilers wanted me to do.
“It almost seemed too good to be true. I wasn’t expecting to be hired that quick. But pretty much my interview the end of August was, ‘Now that you’re retired, I’m going to offer you a deal, and I need you in Edmonton next week!’”
“That’s what you wanted,” puts in Karla. “You didn’t want to find something, you wanted something to find you.”
“I was flattered to be contacted by the Oilers,” he says.” It’s a team I never played on, but here I am working for the Oilers, seven or eight hours down the road. It’s almost like it was meant to be.
“I figured I won’t know if I’m going to like it unless I try it,” he continues, and so far, “the Oilers have been nothing but first-class. I can work out of Regina, and still stay connected to the NHL. They’re very understanding that I have a family. They want me to do my job and do it correctly, but if my son has a tournament, they’ll say, ‘Go ahead, go with your boy to his tournament.’”
Family comes first
It’s important to Mike to be able to spend time with his boys, even if he isn’t coaching them as he thought he might be this winter. “It’s not about coaching minor hockey, it’s their lives I don’t want to miss!”
With three boys playing hockey, the family spends a lot of time at rinks. The boys are very “sports-oriented,” Mike says, not only playing hockey and lacrosse but enjoying watching Roughrider games and Regina Pats games. “Every time I have to go to a Pats game, they always says, ‘Can I come? Can I come?”
Mike and Carla both work out at Level 10 Fitness. They like to dine out at places like Crave, Rock Creek and the Roof Top. Mike mentions The Tap and the Press Box as two pubs he favours if he’s going off to watch football or hockey. The Keg and Earl’s rate a mention, too. But, says Mike, “We’re mostly home bodies.”
And that, ultimately, is why Mike and Karla Sillinger have chosen Regina over all the other places they could be living.
“We’re back here,” says Mike, “because home is home!”