Any athlete will tell you that one of the best ways to improve is to work with, and play against, those of equal or higher skill.
So maybe it's not surprising that Jackson Leef, Karch Bachman, Matt Miller and Blake Siebenaler – some of the most skilled hockey players from northeast Indiana – have connected. They work together on the same ice surfaces, and at off-ice training facilities, every summer in Fort Wayne. They plan to resume their training after the rinks open when restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic are lifted in June.
While they're relatively close in age – Leef is 28, Siebenaler 24, Bachman 23 and Miller 20 – they didn't skate against each other much, if at all, while growing up.
But shared goals, mentalities and coaches have brought them together.
“We have a good group of hockey guys who go in there and work out. It's a good atmosphere to get better,” said Leef, who skated this season with the ECHL's Brampton Beast.
They work off the ice with Paul Zinchenko, a performance coach at OPS, and on the ice with John Salway, who has his own skating academy. And they'll drop in at open skates to replicate game situations at the SportONE/Parkview Icehouse.
“We get into a good routine where we'll work out in the mornings with Zinchenko,” Leef said. “And then we're with Salway two or three times a week – we'll do edge work with him – and he works on a lot of skating with us. There are also pro skates that we do one or two nights a week, just basically drop-ins.”
The group, which began working together about five years ago, has grown to include players such as Zach Satalino, 24, who played in Sweden this season, and Triston Theriot, 23, who was at Leef's alma mater, Westfield State University.
“We're all kind of different ages, so we weren't really competing against each other, or even seeing each other around a lot, coming up in youth hockey,” said Leef, a forward, who had 17 goals and 33 points in 62 games this season.
“It is pretty cool now that we're getting older, and all having the same goals to get better. It's definitely worked out well for all of us.”
Leef and Siebenaler, who are from Fort Wayne and who live across the street from one another, have gone the farthest so far in their careers. Siebenaler, a Leo native, was a third-round draft pick of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014. He skated this season with the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers and had nine goals and 26 points in 50 games as a defenseman. A leg injury prevented Siebenaler from playing against Leef's Brampton team this season.
Bachman, who is from Wolcottville, was in college for Miami (Ohio) and had 10 goals and 31 points in 34 games as a forward. A fifth-round draft pick of the NHL's Florida Panthers in 2015, he's hoping to start his pro career in their minor-league system this fall.
Bachman splits his summer workouts between Fort Wayne and Chicago, where there are more training options, but he said the local group tries “to stick together.” Bachman was drafted, in part, because he's so fast on the ice, but he feels he can always get better.
“Salway is not a hockey guy. His background is as a figure skater,” Bachman said. “Skating might be my best asset, and it's probably Siebenaler's too, maybe even Matt Miller's, but John is at a different level. We're always learning something from him because his edge work is so good.”
Miller, a forward, was in the junior-level United States Hockey League this season – he had 13 goals and 31 points in 47 games for the Lincoln Stars – and is preparing to play Division I college hockey for Nebraska Omaha.
“I've made lots of friends that are older than me, younger than me, just people that have the same desires. We get together and train in the summers and it's been really good,” Miller said. “Guys like Karch Bachman and Jackson Leef, they're great training partners for me. And there are places – Paul Zinchenko's and John Salway's training facilities – that have opened up their doors for us to get better as players.”