There never was really any doubt that massive Toledo Walleye forward Christian Hilbrich would tower over most people one day.
The 6-foot-7, 216-pound skater comes from a family that could form a very good basketball team. Hilbrich, 25, is proving to be the perfect size at the perfect time for a Walleye team off to a solid start this season.
Hilbrich (pronounced hill-brick) leads Toledo in goals scored with nine. Hilbrich, who was one of the first players coach Dan Watson signed during the offseason, also is tied for the team lead in points with 15 through 15 games.
“It’s really easy to play here because it’s a lot of fun,” Hilbrich said. “Toledo has a team that consistently wins, has a fantastic following, and an awesome building and town. Our guys are able to get up for these home games.”
Hilbrich, who has dual American and Canadian citizenship, was born in Denmark. He moved to Toronto when he was 2 years old and lived there until his family moved to Chicago when he was 15.
“I hit my growth spurt when I was about 15,” Hilbrich said. “In eight months I grew six inches. When I was 16, I was 6-4.”
His father, John, is 6-6 and his mother, Sue, is 6-0. Christian is the fourth of six children. He has two brothers and three sisters, and all are tall.
“Everybody in my family is taller than 5-11 — boys and girls,” he said. “Everyone has been lucky enough to carry [that trait] along.”
Watson said he not only liked Hilbrich’s size but also his offensive capability. As a rookie with Wheeling last season, Hilbrich had 45 points in 69 games. Watson said Hilbrich is living up to his expectations.
“He has a great touch around the net with the size to be very effective there,” Watson said.
Hilbrich has scored two game-winning goals and has multiple points in four games. Hilbrich notched his second career hat trick in a home win Thursday against Fort Wayne.
Hilbrich was named runner-up for the ECHL’s player of the week award Tuesday. In four games last week, he had five goals and one assist.
The Walleye (11-2-2), who lead the Western Conference, have an upcoming stretch of four games in five days. Toledo, which has won nine of its past 10 games, plays three games in three nights starting Wednesday at Cincinnati. The Walleye then play Thursday at Fort Wayne, host Worcester on Friday, then play Sunday at Brampton.
Walleye Christian Hilbrich scores his first of three goalsagainst Fort Wayne during the School Day Celebration at The Huntington Center on Nov. 16.
Blade/Amy E. Voigt Enlarge
“It’s a big thing to go and win on the road,” Hilbrich said. “But I think winning at home is more important, because then other teams know that it’s not going to be an easy night here.”
Both of Hilbrich’s parents are American. His father grew up in Indiana playing basketball. His mother is from Wisconsin.
“Hockey is a birthright in Toronto,” Hilbrich said. “My two older brothers played, and I started playing when I was 4. I loved it right away. I was really good at a young age, and I played for the top teams in Ontario.”
As a teen, he played for the best Triple-A teams in Chicago. He then was recruited to play for the Wenatchee Wild, a team based in Washington state that competes in the North American Hockey League.
“That’s when stuff opened up for me. That was my ‘making it in hockey’ moment,” he said.
He then was drafted into the United States Hockey League by the Indiana Ice and played two seasons there. He caught the attention of Cornell University coach Mike Schafer, who recruited the large prodigy.
Hilbrich had other college offers, including a spot as a walk-on at Notre Dame — where both of his grandparents went to school.
But when he visited Cornell, he was instantly hooked. He said he fell in love with the hockey arena, Lynah Rink.
“It’s an incredible atmosphere,” he said. “The student section, which is about 2,000, stands up the entire time. They have chants, and the band gets involved. It’s so loud. For me a huge part of playing hockey is having fun. When it’s rowdy, it’s incredibly fun.”
It was the same atmosphere that attracted him to the Walleye and the Huntington Center, which often is filled to capacity with raucous energy. Hilbrich’s first experience in the environment at the downtown arena came last season when he was playing for visiting Wheeling.
“The energy in the building reminded me a lot of Cornell. That sold me on it,” Hilbrich said.
His former college teammate, defenseman Jacob MacDonald, also convinced him to come to Toledo. MacDonald started his pro career here and was named to the ECHL all-star team. He then was signed by Albany of the American Hockey League and never returned to Toledo.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys, and the Walleye are the model organization in the ECHL,” Hilbrich said.
The young forward had a startling introduction to the city on his first trip to the arena.
Toledo's Christian Hilbrich (8) takes a shot during the home opener for the Toledo Walleye against the Quad City Mallards at the Huntington Center in Toledo on Oct. 21.
Blade/Kurt Steiss Enlarge
“We were driving down the [Anthony Wayne] Trail, and I was in the passenger’s seat looking down, and when I popped my head up, there was a giraffe just standing right there next to the highway,” he said. “I didn’t realize the zoo was right there. It caught me by total surprise, so I figured Toledo must be somewhat of an exotic spot. That was my first impression of Toledo.”
Hilbrich, who was born on July 9, said he has always worn No. 9. But that had to change when he came to Toledo since second-year defenseman Simon Denis wears that number. Hilbrich said equipment manager Dave Aleo made it clear he would be not be wearing that number.
“He shut that down immediately,” Hilbrich said. “He texted me and said ‘Simon Denis wears No. 9. He was our top-scoring defenseman last year. You can not wear that number.’”
Denis was equally blunt, albeit more comical.
“Simon texted me and said, ‘Welcome to T-Town brother. On a side note, I’m glad to see you got No. 8. That’s one below me — as it should be,’” Hilbrich said, chuckling.
Hilbrich credits his linemates, which have included captain Alden Hirschfeld, Tyler Barnes, and Erik Bradford for his hot start.
“I’m seeing the ice better. I’m more patient with the puck,” he said. “I pride myself on being creative with the puck. The game has slowed down for me. I’m understanding the flow of the game.”
Watson said Hilbrich has been steady and reliable.
“He keeps having strong performances,” Watson said. “He is a big, consistent guy. When he’s going, he’s going hard. We love having him here.”
Hilbrich said he knew the Walleye had won regular-season titles in two of the past three seasons only to lose in the Kelly Cup playoffs.
“I feel like Toledo has been on the cusp. They’ve had some stellar teams here. It seemed like size had been an issue,” Hilbrich said. “Now if you look at our roster, there’s not many forwards under 6 foot. It’s nice to go somewhere you are wanted.”
He said the key to the solid start has been balanced scoring and depth.
Hilbrich said he has never won a championship.
“I’ve never won a cup at any level. That is the only stone left unturned,” he said. “There’s nothing else I want more than to do it here.”