STOCKTON -- The schedule calls it an exhibition.
But the hockey game in which Drew Sanders will play tonight might as well be the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Modesto native has 60 minutes tonight and another hour on Saturday to prove he belongs on the roster of the Stockton Thunder.
By this time next week, Thunder coach Chris Cichocki will have trimmed his team to no more than 20 players, and entering tonight's game in Fresno and Saturday's at Stockton Arena, Sanders has yet to earn one of those spots.
He's a left wing on the bubble.
"He's making a great case for himself to be in the Thunder lineup on opening night," Cichocki said. "I have an open mind about who will make the roster."
Think about the odds against someone from Modesto making it far enough in hockey to even be in an ECHL training camp.
Sanders, 24, was born in 1983, seven years after Olympic Gold Ice Arena -- Modesto's last ice rink -- burned down. It's now a Modesto Junior College parking lot and soon to be the site of a parking deck.
Northern California didn't have a team in the National Hockey League in 1983. The Golden Seals bolted Oakland for Cleveland in 1976, and the Sharks began playing at the Cow Palace in 1991.
But Sanders not only beat those initial odds, he's been doing so consistently for 16 years.
As the youngest of three children and the only son of Frank and Linda Sanders, Drew Sanders played baseball and soccer -- just like all the other kids his age.
But late in the 1991-92 NHL season, the Sharks just happened to have a game on television, which was a rarity in those early years -- and Drew Sanders just happened to stumble across the telecast.
Something clicked with the 9-year-old.
"I saw a game on TV and it looked like fun," Sanders said. "I asked my dad if I could try playing hockey, and he had to call around to find out that Stockton had a rink."
He enrolled in the Oak Park Ice Arena's Monday night beginners' hockey program and quickly took to the game, latching on with a Stockton Colts' youth team.
Before long, he was getting noticed by scouts for travel teams and signed on with the Bay Eagles. The good news was that it was a higher level of hockey. The bad news was that the Eagles practiced in Redwood City. Every Sunday. At 6 a.m.
"We'd go there on Saturday night and stay overnight," said Frank Sanders, a building contractor and 1966 Modesto High graduate. "We spent a lot of time doing that, and then they played tournaments in Canada and that was a lot of travel.
"But as long as he was having fun, so was I. I just enjoyed watching him play. Now, people complain to me about having to travel all the way to Lodi for football and they get no sympathy from me."
From the Bay Eagles, Sanders moved up into the Junior Sharks program in San Jose, then was selected to a Northern California elite team.
With each new level came an uptick in competition that for most represented a new ceiling.
"All of these teams are like pyramids in that the higher you go up, the less room there is," Drew Sanders said. "Out of everybody I played with prior to college, I'm the only one still playing."
In Sanders' case, the hockey limits he faced weren't in his abilities but in the level of developmental hockey being played in Northern California. If his dream was to play professional hockey, he would have to leave the region.
So Sanders attended Beyer High School through his sophomore year, then transferred to Marquette Senior High School in Michigan's frosty Upper Peninsula.
"That was devastating, but that's what he wanted to do," Frank Sanders said. "We wanted to support him, but taking him back there and dropping him off at 16, we just cried. That was so hard. It was hard on him, too, to leave home, even though he was playing hockey at a high level."
Drew Sanders joined the 18-Under Midget AAA Marquette Electricians, then after graduating from high school earned a spot with the Great Falls (Mont.) Americans of the America West Hockey League, a high-caliber junior circuit.
The playing pyramid continued to narrow. After two seasons in junior hockey, Sanders was offered a scholarship to play at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., a member of the NCAA Division I Atlantic Hockey Association.
Sanders wasn't a big-scorer at forward, and finished his career with five goals and 21 assists in 128 games. He emerged in May with a college degree, a double-major in business management and finance, and a four-year stay on the AHA all-academic team.
But for the first time since 1992, Sanders didn't have a place to play hockey.
During last year's winter break from college, Sanders made it home for about a week and made it to a Thunder game at Stockton Arena. After graduation, one of the first calls he made was to Cichocki.
The Thunder coach took a few days to check out Sanders' playing résumé and within a week offered a contract with only one guarantee -- a chance to fight for a roster spot.
At 5 feet 8 inches and 175 pounds, Sanders is the smallest player in Thunder camp, so he has to make his impression in ways other than being physical. Cichocki has noticed.
"He's a headsy player," Cichocki said. "Coaches can tell right away if a player has good hockey sense and good instincts on the ice, and Drew is that guy. He sees the ice well and is very smart.
"There are guys in the locker room whose hockey sense is not that great, and Drew is not one of those guys. He gets it. If you go over a drill and a strategy, he understands immediately."
Like most personnel decisions, Sanders' future with the Thunder could come down to a numbers game. So far, the Edmonton Oilers -- Stockton's NHL affiliate -- have shipped eight players to the Thunder. Those players are guaranteed roster spots. There are six players in camp who played last season with Stockton and should have an inside track to being on the team.
"Some guys have made it already in my mind, but there are spots available and Drew is in the running for one of them," Cichocki said.
The coach will know Sanders' future with the Thunder following the exhibition games. For Sanders, it's the latest in a series of hockey decisions out of his control -- another run-in with the pyramid.
"I'm doing well in camp," Sanders said. "At times, I'm very confident, and other times, I think I'm struggling a little bit. It's all part of learning the game at this level.
"They say here that the big guys have to prove they can't play and the smaller guys have to prove they can play."
Sanders has beaten the odds for so long, it's tough to bet against him.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.