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Junior hockey player could be NHL's tallest - if he can grow his game Add to ...

His hockey stick is taller than most of his teammates.

And when Sean Sanford walks through the Drumheller Dragons dressing room, he's been known to smack his head on the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

At more than seven feet tall with skates on, Sanford isn't just big for a junior hockey player, he could end up being the tallest pro hockey player. If he can make it there.

Listed conservatively at 6 foot 9 in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Sanford is actually about 6 foot 9¼ in bare feet.

At that height, he's a quarter-inch taller than Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, the NHL's tallest player on record. But only a few months past his 18th birthday, Sanford is still growing. Based on his size-15 feet, which require his skates to be specially ordered over the Internet, doctors figure Sanford could still add another inch or more to his skyscraping frame.

"Almost on a daily basis, I get asked how tall I am," Sanford says, unfazed by the constant attention. "If I was to walk downtown, I would probably be stopped two or three times. It's a good way to start a conversation."

People have certainly been talking. In this central Alberta town of 8,000 - world famous for its dinosaur museum - nothing as big as Sanford has been seen roaming these parts in a long time.

But after notching six points in his first five games this season, Sanford's play is also being noticed. Though his offensive output has cooled since then (he has 10 points in 21 games), the stream of scouts venturing to Dragons games has not.

Two NHL teams have already called, and three U.S. colleges are interested in talking.

Height is a peculiar commodity in hockey. It is coveted by coaches, since size and reach can be dominant tools, but it is no guarantor of success. Only two 6-foot-9 players have ever come close to the NHL, and their fates have been dramatically different.

Chara recently signed a seven-year contract averaging $6.5-million (U.S.) a season. The NHL's only other 6-foot-9 player, Lane Manson of Watrous, Sask., was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, but never played a shift.

Height turned out to be Manson's enemy, since he couldn't muster enough speed for the pro game.

While Sanford acknowledges he isn't the fastest player on the ice, he's not the slowest. He has so far shown his doubters that he can lug 81 inches of athlete around the rink and make it look graceful.

But the scouts who have made the pilgrimage to see Sanford play this season all ask the same questions. With obvious size and apparent talent, how is it that he's only emerging on the scene now at 18? How could someone so conspicuous go unnoticed?

"It's the same thing I thought when I first saw him," Drumheller head coach and general manager Dan Price says. "What am I missing?"

The answer rests in the unusual route Sanford has taken to land on hockey's radar screen. Born in North Carolina, he spent his childhood hopping between Japan, Arizona and Colorado as the son of a U.S. Marine. He learned to skate in Okinawa, then joined his first hockey team in Phoenix, where most kids play basketball or football.

Hockey was always Sanford's calling, but he never knew how to pursue a career in the sport. When he was cut from his local junior team, he drove to tryouts in Minnesota. When that didn't work, he almost gave up.

Then, last year, he was invited to play for the Missoula Maulers, a tier-three junior team in Montana. By midseason, his coach was sending e-mails to teams in Canada urging them to give Sanford a tryout in a better league.

Curiosity overcame Price, who drove eight hours to watch him play.

Drumheller is now trying to fast-track Sanford's development. More of a long shot than a sure shot, the centre knows he must continue improving his game.

But height makes him a target. He's already been suspended three games for fighting.

"I got jumped," he says with a shrug. "The other guy got five punches in before I even had my gloves off."

Such is the reality when you are the biggest guy on the ice, Manson says. The former Thrashers draft pick spent four seasons in the minors trying to improve his speed. But as the giant on his team, he was constantly having to fight players who were trying to make a name for themselves.

"Some guy gets called up and he's thinking: 'I need to fight this big guy or my career might be over,' " Manson says. "Then, I'd have to sit in the penalty box. I was trying to develop my game - wrestling with 5-foot-9 pluggers was not something I relished."

Manson had been a defensive force in junior, able to tie up opposing forwards with his telescopic reach. But when the NHL rewrote the rules to clamp down on clutch-and-grab hockey, his style suddenly worked against him.

Manson retired in 2008 without ever suiting up for an NHL game. He now runs a hotel in his hometown.

"This is the last five seconds of my 15 minutes of fame," he says.

Inch by inch, though, hockey players are getting taller. The average height of an NHL player has gone up two inches since the 1970s, to about 6 foot 1 now, according to the league. But the most dramatic shift took place in the 1990s.

Of the 32 players listed at 6 foot 6 or taller who have been property of NHL teams over the years, all but six played after 1990. And every player 6 foot 7 or taller came after 1996, including last year's rookie of the year, 6-foot-8 Buffalo Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers.

At those heights, players face unique problems. Sanford struggles with broken ribs, since standard equipment doesn't protect his torso the way it would a smaller player. Finding suitable sticks is also a concern. He uses nine-inch extensions inserted into the top of his sticks to make them longer.

Though players are known to inflate their height by adding a few inches on paper to seem more imposing, Sanford has no desire to round up. He's more concerned with bulking up. At a lean 215 pounds, he's 40 pounds lighter than Chara.

Not one to exaggerate, he refuses to call himself 6 foot 10 until he officially gets there.

But if Sanford wants to play down his height, Manson understands.

"I used to list myself at 6-7," he says. "The prototypical big hockey player is about 6-4, so if you start listing yourself at more than that, you get looked at differently."

Though Sanford's height makes it impossible to hide, there is an upside: After a lifetime spent toiling in hockey obscurity, it's not such a bad thing to finally stand out.

"I just want to see how far I can take it," Sanford says.

 

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