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Teen hopes to break away from pack at NHL Gaming World Championship

The Canadian showdown takes place Saturday evening at the Sportsnet studio in downtown Toronto
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If you're a hockey fan and a gamer, you might think you're pretty good at NHL19.

You might have some tricks to score goals, but the real best of the best will go head-to-head -- and face-to-face -- this weekend in Toronto with a trip to Las Vegas on the line and a shot at a world title. 

Harley Sitko, a 19-year-old Barrie resident, has qualified for the regional (Canadawide) finals with hopes of advancing to the world tournament for a second consecutive year.

The former Bear Creek Secondary School, who goes by the gamer tag 'Sitful', was finalist in 2018. 

The Canadian showdown takes place Saturday from 5-7 p.m. at the Sportsnet studio in downtown Toronto. 

With a top-two finish in Toronto, Sitko could punch his ticket to Vegas for the world championships at put it all on the line.

The championships are now in the third phase, with eight players from each region, including Canada, Europe and the United States. They will complete to win one of two spots in the world final on June 18.

Sitko says believes he has a lot going for him.

"Honestly, probably a 90 per cent chance (of advancing)," he said confidently in an interview with BarrieToday. "Pretty high."

As the cliche goes, hockey is Canada's game, so the competition level is high. 

"There was about 10,000 people trying to qualify for the top eight and I just happened to be one of them, luckily," he said. "There are a lot of pretty good players in there."

Each Canadian competitor, three of whom were finalists last year, was seeded using their platform of choice. The other regional finalists hail from Quebec, Vancouver, Sudbury, Brantford and Bolton. 

Sitko says he has been to a couple of "land events" and met his foes in the flesh while playing live, but most of the gamers on hand this weekend he hasn't met before. 

"It'll be pretty cool to meet the rest of them," he said. 

One in particular Sitko has his eye on will be Yung Gren (Quebec's Matthew Grenier), who advanced to the Vegas championship last year and is in the top eight again this year. 

"He's pretty tough, but luckily he's on the other side of the bracket," Sitko said. "I don't have to play him until the finals, so that's good."

Following qualification, the eight competitors played games to decide regional seeding, evenly split between Xbox and PlayStation4 platforms. 

"I lost the first series and then won the next, so I'm on the one side that's a little bit weaker, I would say, which is good for me," noted Sitko, who qualified on PS4, although last year he was on the Xbox.

Sitko runs both systems at home, and each come with their differences for NHL19

"I find on PS4 that there's less contact with the hitting, so you can control the puck more," he said. "If you're truly a better player, you can outpossess your opponent and control the whole, entire game on PS4. Xbox is a little more random, I would say."

Gamers who qualified on Xbox will have to play on PS4 systems this weekend.

"I've been playing on PS4 for the last four months, so I'm more used to it than Xbox right now, so it's good for me," Sitko said. "Some of the Xbox guys might have a hard time, though, who haven't played PS4. I know a few of them don't have a PS4."

Those gamers will have to make serious adjustments right off the bat. 

"Last year, I qualified on Xbox and had never played on PS4, so it was tough last year," he added. 

The controller and buttons are different, and so is the gameplay, Sitko said. 

"You can't really bump your opponents; you have to be in good position to make the plays," he said. "It's just more skilled, I think, on PS4."

Sitko has been playing the NHL franchise games for a few years. 

"With a few of my real-life friends, I probably started playing around NHL12 and I started to take it seriously around NHL17," he said. "That's when tournaments started happening, competing for money, so I was really into it."

It never dawned on him in the begining, but Sitko says he's been able to earn an income from gaming. 

"It's great. Actually, I don't really tell many people," he said with a laugh.

Canadian finalists drafted their Ultimate Hockey Team rosters a couple weeks ago and have been practising for game day. 

The draft included all eight competitors, with Sitko holding the sixth-overall pick after qualification. 

"I took Auston Matthews first, so he's my No. 1 centre and my go-to guy," said Sitko, whose squad also includes forwards David Pastrnak from the Boston Bruins and Jamie Benn from the Dallas Stars, as well as defencemen Seth Jones from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Thomas Chabot from the Ottawa Senators.

"It's pretty much like an all-star team that everyone has," he added. "A lot of players that can just make plays out of nowhere. We all have good teams."

Edmonton's Connor McDavid was taken first overall, followed by Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon before Sitko was able to make a selection. 

While Sitko is content with his team, he has his favourite players. 

"I'm pretty happy with who I got, but if I could choose just anybody, it would probably be Crosby because I'm a Penguins fan," he said. "But to have Matthews is really good, too."

He also has Columbus netminder Andrei Bobrovsky between the pipes. 

Sitko has a strategy going into the event. 

"I'm a fast player and I play on the rush," he said. "I try to play off my defence, so I'll trap and then the second I get the puck I'll go up (ice) quick and try to catch you on odd-man rushes. That's mostly how I score my goals. If it comes down to it, I'll move it around and try to get open space for one-timers."

All regional competitions will be streamed live on the NHL’s Twitch channel, www.twitch.tv/nhl.




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Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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