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Calgary's Cinderella Man Add to ...

The question was put to Tyler Sloan as he sat in the far corner of the Washington Capitals dressing room, a few stalls to the right of Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin and hockey's most dynamic force, Alexander Ovechkin: If someone made a movie out of your career, what would they call it?

Sloan smiled as he undid his skates. Cinderella Man, he replied.

Indeed, his saga is the feel-good story of this early NHL season.

It's the tale of a 27-year-old career minor-leaguer who finally gets his shot in the NHL. Better yet, the hard-luck defenceman gets to debut in his home city against the team he grew up watching, with his mom, dad, older brother and some 40-plus friends in attendance hanging on his every shift.

That's what transpired last night at the Pengrowth Saddledome, when Sloan faced the Calgary Flames in an underdog's tale of patience, perseverance and love for a sister who died eight years ago in a heart-wrenching accident on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Tara Sloan was a five-time national breaststroke champion and a likely member of the Canadian swim team bound for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She was driving to see her grandmother in Saskatchewan, when her van swerved and rolled several times leaving her with a serious brain injury.

Rocked by grief, Fred and Gayle Sloan made the decision to take their 20-year-old daughter off life support. Her death, at the height of her vitality, had a profound effect on Tyler, who turned 19 less than a week later.

"He was very close to his sister," Fred Sloan said of his youngest son. "When something like that happens it can affect you in different ways and I think he used it as a springboard. He adopted her discipline and drive and her mental focus."

"It just sort of happened," Tyler Sloan said of his transformation. "Swimmers are tremendous athletes. Their work ethic is unparalleled. I saw what it took for her to get there. That was important because I didn't realize what it took to get to this level."

Sloan later came across a journal his sister had kept of all her workouts and wishes. There were lap times, details about nutrition and a list of goals she'd hoped to achieve. He still reads the journal whenever he wants to reflect or simply needs motivation.

"Here's something else you should know about Tyler," said the proud father, who had driven his son's Jeep Cherokee to Hershey, Pa., where Sloan had been playing in the AHL, only to turn around and fly back to Calgary in time for last night's game. "He was never drafted at any level of hockey - not bantam, WHL, NHL, never."

Sloan worked his way up from midget hockey to the Alberta junior league, where he was signed to a contract by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He ended up playing two seasons in the WHL with the Kamloops Blazers, but was mired in the minors when the NHL lockout of 2004-05 ground things to a halt.

"The lockout year I almost gave up a couple of times," he admitted. "I knew I wanted to play hockey. I was in the ECHL for most of the year [a notch below the AHL] I didn't have a great time or a great coach. A friend of mine was traded to Las Vegas and he said, 'You've got to come here.' I did and I had one of the best years in hockey I've ever had.

"The next thing I knew, I got called up to Hershey and I got a second chance."

With Hershey, Sloan played well enough to help the Bears win the 2006 Calder Cup. Bruce Boudreau was the coach of that team. When he took over behind the Capitals bench, Boudreau encouraged the Capitals to sign Sloan to a free-agent deal.

Sloan was back with the Bears when he was told Sunday his dream had come true; he was headed for the NHL.

"There was wind of it Saturday that the Caps might need some extra bodies for their western road trip but I didn't expect it this early," he said. "I was ecstatic. … You couldn't write it any better. How many guys get to do this, play their first NHL game in their hometown?"

Sloan started the game with defensive partner Jeff Schultz, oddly enough another Calgary native who grew up not far away. But before the puck dropped for the opening faceoff, before he looked up into the crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of his personal cheering section, he thought about everything he'd gone through to make it this far.

Naturally, he thought of his sister and what she'd meant to him, in life and death.

"She was such a good person and an elite athlete that I wanted to be like her," he said. "I wish she was here to witness this but I'm sure she's watching."

Her Cinderella Man of the NHL.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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