There was a time when the mere mention of Mike Sillinger’s name made U-Haul operators across North America smile. During 17 National Hockey League seasons, the speedy forward played for a dozen different teams – a league record. He also was traded a record nine times (a distinction he shares with Brent Ashton, another former Red Wing) and wore nine different numbers during his NHL career.
All that moving around might suggest a guy nobody wanted. But it’s like what they say in baseball: You have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games. Similarly, you have to be a pretty good player to rack up some 1,100 NHL regular-season and playoff games, even if you do it wearing a closetful of different jerseys.
Sillinger, known as an uncomplaining, down-to-earth guy, never had a problem with his reputation as hockey’s ultimate journeyman. “That’s just what happens sometimes, you get pinpointed as a tradable guy,” he once told ESPN. “I’d hear people talk about me, they’d say, ‘He’s a great leader, a great teammate, a good player, why has he been traded so much?’ I was never breaking banks in terms of salary, so that also makes you a tradable asset.
“Then once I started to establish myself as a solid, two-way player who could play in different situations, on the power play, killing penalties, I just became one of those guys that teams seemed to trade for. It’s one of those things you find out quick in the NHL: You have to do something special. Fighters fight, hitters hit, penalty killers block shots, scorers score. You have to find your niche.”
Sillinger was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and was Detroit’s first choice in the 1989 entry draft. He was a scoring machine with the Regina Pats, and was only 19 when called up to the Wings at the end of the 1990-91 season. He spent the following season in the American Hockey League, helping the Adirondack Red Wings win the Calder Cup. Sillinger led the AHL playoffs in scoring with 28 points in 15 games while also appearing in eight games during Detroit’s playoff run.
With the big club, Sillinger was just a fourth-line player, though he made the most of the situation during the five partial seasons he played at The Joe. Just before the start of the 1995 playoffs, he and Jason York were sent to Anaheim for Stu Grimson, Mark Ferner, and a draft pick. Sillinger always viewed the trade as an opportunity to get the playing time he was never going to get with guys named Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Dino Ciccarelli, and Ray Sheppard on the roster. “They had so many good players, so many scorers, I knew I would never get a sniff on the power play,” he said. “When I broke into the league, I knew I was going to kill penalties and that was about it. That’s why I became a good faceoff guy: If you weren’t winning faceoffs, you weren’t going to kill penalties either.”
The Mighty Ducks traded Sillinger to Vancouver. From there he went on to suit up for Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Florida, Ottawa, Columbus, Phoenix, St. Louis, Nashville, and the New York Islanders before chronic hip problems finally forced him to announce his retirement in August 2009. Today he works as director of player development for the Edmonton Oilers. He and Karla, a hometown girl he married during his last season in Detroit, are comfortably settled in Regina with their three young hockey-loving sons.
Sillinger, who never played in a Stanley Cup finals, is occasionally reminded of the fact that, two years after he was traded by Detroit, the Wings won their first of back-to-back championships. “Yeah, they won the Cup, and I realized that, in some ways, it would have been great to stick it out,” he reflected. “But when it comes to your career, you can’t look back and dwell on things. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.”