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Dartmouth's Sikura Has 'Got That Vision'

Dartmouth College center Tyler Sikura, left, turns towards a loose puck against Rensselaer last month. The sophomore center led the Big Green in scoring last season and is atop that list again this winter. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Dartmouth College center Tyler Sikura, left, turns towards a loose puck against Rensselaer last month. The sophomore center led the Big Green in scoring last season and is atop that list again this winter. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Hanover — Just describing the play made Bob Gaudet chuckle in disbelief. The Dartmouth College men’s hockey coach recalled how his best offensive player, Tyler Sikura, was backchecking through the neutral zone against Boston College last week when the Eagles chipped the puck into the Big Green zone.

The puck slowed near the top of the circles, with Sikura hot on its path and an opponent at his heels. A stride or two from the biscuit, Sikura threw a quick, barely-perceptible glance over his shoulder, then slammed a skate blade into the ice as he reached out with his stick.

Spinning 180 degrees and flinging the puck back up ice all in one motion, the sophomore watched in satisfaction as his unconventional pass found teammate Tim O’Brien on the opposite blue line. The feed resulted in a breakaway chance against the Boston College goaltender.

“He’s got that vision,” Gaudet said with an appreciate shake of his head. “Tape to tape, all the way through center ice.”

The story of how Sikura wound up at Dartmouth, where he’s been the team’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons, isn’t quite as direct. During the summer of 2009, the 17-year-old attended an elite hockey camp in Minnesota, where professionals and top college and junior players subject themselves to a grueling week of on- and off-ice conditioning. They pay nearly $1,000 for the privilege, working under professional and college coaches and scouts.

While there, Sikura’s group was guided in part by Dartmouth assistant coach John Rose. The youngster attended an academically-demanding high school near Toronto, and he’d always been interested in playing U.S. college hockey. Rose and Sikura talked and a few months later, fellow Dartmouth assistant Dave Peters watched one of the player’s first games for the Newmarket Hurricanes of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

That level is a step below the Major Junior’s Ontario Hockey League, one of the primary feeder circuits for the big-money National Hockey League. An OHL player, however, forfeits his NCAA eligibility because he’s paid a stipend, so talented prospects who want to keep their U.S. collegiate options open may choose to stay in their “Tier II” provincial leagues.

Glenn Sikura, Tyler’s father, had heard from his son that Dartmouth was interested, but he mostly chalked that up as recruiting pillow talk. The Hurricanes had also been making their final cuts, so when the phone rang and Tyler said in a shaky voice that he needed to talk, Glenn feared his boy had been sent packing. Instead, Tyler was calling to tell him that Peters had been so impressed by what he’d seen that he was offering a slot in Dartmouth’s 2011 recruiting class.

“We went down to visit the next weekend and after we saw the school and met the coaches, my wife and I took Tyler out to dinner,” Glenn said. “I told him to jump on the chance. These guys are willing to take a risk on you and the campus is beautiful and the school is great. How are you going to improve on that? Even Harvard, Yale or Princeton would have been a sideways move, in my mind.”

Sikura committed to Dartmouth and played two junior seasons, putting up 63 points in 51 games during the second campaign. He was lanky and his skating stride caused some scouts to frown, but his performance since arriving in Hanover has done little to undercut the idea that the Big Green got a steal. The sociology major had 11 goals and 14 assists in 33 games last winter and has nine goals and six assists in 13 contests this season.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of role and opportunity I’d be given,” said Sikura, who scored in his college debut. “I thought I was capable of making an impact. That first game was a real confidence booster.”

Creative, intense and crafty, Sikura not only sees the ice well, he’s capable of exploiting opportunities with a strong shot, a feathery pass or a drive to the net. Gaudet notes that No. 16 often pulls the puck toward his body a split second before shooting, which gives goaltenders trouble in picking up its flight. Defensively responsible, one of the team’s hardest workers and relentlessly upbeat, Sikura is a coach’s dream.

“He’s a zero maintenance guy,” Gaudet said appreciatively. “During the spring, you’ll hear pucks clanging around in the off-ice skills room over our offices (in Davis Varsity House) and invariably it’s Tyler Sikura up there, shooting and stickhandling. That intensity and work pays off.”

It’s also in Sikura’s blood. His grandfather, John Sikura, Jr., fled the former Czechoslovakia ahead of a Russian invasion as a young teenager, along with his sister and parents. The Sikuras spent time in a refugee camp before arriving in Nova Scotia by boat and Toronto by bus in 1950.

“When they got off, they had the clothes on their backs and were given a $10 bill and the warm wishes of the Canadian government,” Glenn Sikura said. “My grandfather had been a lawyer back home, but he became a janitor, and my mother became a seamstress.”

John Sikura Jr., became what the Breeder’s Cup website describes as “a self-made millionaire.” By his 30s, he had worked his way into trading stocks and bought land for what remains the family’s Hill ‘n’ Dale race horse breeding farm in Aurora, Ontario, about 30 miles north of Toronto. In the 1980s, Sikura opened an American offshoot of the farm in Lexington, Ky., currently operated by Glenn’s brother, John Sikura III, and the burial site of former Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

In an unfortunate twist to the family history, John Sikura, Jr. died in a 1994 car fire that was twice investigated as criminally suspicious. Eventually ruled to have been caused by a mechanical or electrical failure, the fire nonetheless led the Sikura family to sue General Motors for $136 million. The Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the Sikuras won an undisclosed out-of-court settlement, although the car maker admitted no responsibility.

Long before that tragedy, Glenn and his brother grew up on the horse farm, the former becoming a national-caliber wrestler and the latter playing hockey for Michigan State and in a Danish professional league. The love of sports, the appreciation of education and the willingness to work at both pursuits has extended through the generations.

Two seasons from now, Tyler will be joined at Dartmouth by his younger brother, Dylan, a forward who’s accepted a spot in the Big Green’s 2014 recruiting class and who is currently playing in the OJHL. Their older sister, Karlie, is a driven student on track to graduate from chiropractic college.

“The boys and their sister got their work ethic from me, and I got it from my father, who got it from his father,” Glenn Sikura said. “We couldn’t be more proud.”

Gaudet couldn’t be happier. Sikura plays on the top line and, after adding 10 pounds of muscle last spring and summer, has become a more physical competitor without losing his playmaking touch.

“I love the way he works,” said the coach, whose 5-2-2 team hosts Bentley tonight and Vermont on Wednesday in a game to be nationally broadcast on the NBC Sports Network. “You can trust him with anything and he’s honest about his performance. You don’t need to sugarcoat anything with him.”

Incorporating Sikura has been a sweet deal for Dartmouth, no doubt.

Notes: During the previous three Saturdays, No. 11 Dartmouth has played No. 8 Union, No. 10 Cornell and No. 1 Boston College. Dartmouth’s strength of schedule is currently ranked the toughest in the country. … Bentley (6-6) lost 5-0 to Harvard earlier this season. … Falcons sophomore defenseman Steven Weinstein is a graduate of Los Angeles’ John Marshall High, also attended by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, onetime “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss, NFL coach Andy Reid and Lance Ito, the judge in O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial. … Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist is in his 11th season with a program that joined the Division I ranks in 1999. The Falcons’ career leader in goal and points and a 2000 graduate, he became the youngest Division I coach in the country when he took the reins in 2002. … Dartmouth won the teams’ only previous meeting, 5-1, in 2007 at Thompson Arena… The Big Green opened the season 5-0-1. but is 0-2-1 in its last three games. … Bentley has the best power play among Division I teams, while Dartmouth has the top penalty-killing unit. … The Big Green is 10-4-3 against teams from the Atlantic Hockey Conference, which houses the Falcons. The conference was formed in 2003. … Fans attending Dartmouth’s next two home games can bring new, unwrapped toys that will be donated to the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.