Friday, September 22, 2017

Whirlwind Offseason Complete

Has there ever been a four month period in Seattle Thunderbirds history like the one the franchise has just experienced?   It started last May with the team winning their first ever WHL Championship and concluded this week, on the eve of a brand new season no less, with the team announcing the franchise has been sold, pending approval by the City of Kent and the WHL Board of Governors.

In between, the team saw head coach Steve Konowalchuk exit in June, taking a position as an assistant coach with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.  In July assistant coach Matt O'Dette was named as Konowalchuk's replacement.  At the same time it was announced that assistant coach Tyler Alos was leaving the organization to pursue an opportunity outside hockey.

That prompted the hiring of two new assistants, Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer to join O'Dette on the Seattle bench.  There was the usual offseason activity such as the trade of Anthony Bishop to Victoria for Blake Bargar and the signing of the team's top three picks from the spring Bantam Draft.  Then came the injury to Carl Stankowski at camp with Canada's U-18 team that will keep the T-birds goalie on the shelf until November.  Just before training camp head scout Dan McLean accepted a job with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins and Mark Romas was chosen as his successor.

Even the building the T-birds play in got an updated name, now known as the accesso ShoWare Center.  There were a couple more minor trades that brought Noah Philp and Liam Hughes to the organization.   Last week it was announced the Thunderbirds would be honored down in Olympia by Governor Jay Inslee for their 2017 Chynoweth Cup win and Thursday Turner Ottenbreit was announced as this season's team captain.

But the T-birds saved the biggest news for last.  A little over 24 hours from raising their Championship banner, they announced the tentative sale of the team to Dan Leckelt and Lindsey Leckelt, Co-CEO’s of Silent-Aire, a company, which according to the team's website engineers and manufactures custom HVAC solutions for data centers, institutions and industrial facilities with over 50 schools alone in Washington State utilizing Silent-Aire equipment. Silent-Aire also engineers and manufactures equipment for the world’s largest hyper scale data center companies.  The company has bases in Seattle, Edmonton, Phoenix, Virginia and Ireland.

The prospective owners aren't hockey neophytes either.  Both played minor and pro hockey and are owners of the Stony Plain Eagles Senior AAA hockey team as well as the Spruce Grove Jr. A Saints.

If approved, it will mark the first ownership change in club history in nearly two decades.  In the early 2000's Russ Farwell, Colin Campbell and their group purchased the club from Bill Yuill.  They then built it into a profitable, championship caliber, Major Junior franchise in the WHL's biggest market.  That's not an easy task considering the other options in the region vying for the sporting public's dollar.  They worked with the City of Kent to cultivate a partnership after moving into the ShowWare Center in 2009.   They essentially turned over a good chunk of their fanbase from their KeyArena days.   They've embraced their new community and region and the community has embraced them back.

If the sale is approved, both Farwell and Campbell will stay on in their roles as General Manager and Assistant General Manager and continue to help oversee what they have built.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Net Gain

With presumptive starter Carl Stankowski on the shelf with injury until late October/early November, Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell swung a deal for goaltender Liam Hughes.  Farwell sent a 2019 fourth round Bantam pick to the Edmonton Oil Kings in exchange for the 18 year old netminder.

Hughes, a native of Kelowna, B.C. played in seven games last season for Edmonton, posting a record of 1-4-2-0 with a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .895.  He went 0-1 in two preseason games this September. 

Hughes was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 Bantam draft.  Hughes will most likely compete with Matt Berlin for ice time until Stankowski is healthy enough to return.  I would surmise T-birds brass wants to see young 16 year old Cole Schwebius get more seasoning, as well as more ice time, possibly with a Junior A team, although it is possible Seattle could start the season with three goalies on the roster and keep Schwebius for a week or two.

The addition of Hughes now gives Seattle four signed goaltenders in their system.  As short as three weeks ago the T-birds only had two and one, Stankowski, was injured.  Schwebius, a 2016 10th round Bantam selection signed just before the start of the preseason.  While his preseason numbers aren't stellar, he competed well and looks like he will be part of the future in goal.

By dealing for the 18 year old Hughes, Seattle didn't have to pay too steep a price, surrendering just the 2019 fourth round pick.  While there are a few free agent 20 year old goalies, such as Cody Porter and Mario Petit, looking for roster spots in the WHL, acquiring one would have cost Seattle one of their current 20 year olds in either Donovan Neuls, Tyler Adams, Turner Ottenbreit or Austin Strand. That would have been a steep price to pay for essentially two months of service.   As it is the T-birds will have to trim or trade one of those from their roster at or before the 20 year old cutdown date.  I'm sure they didn't want to have to depart with two of that group.

Meanwhile Hughes, at age 18 still has three years of WHL eligibility left.

  

Friday, August 25, 2017

Starting Over

Now that the rookie prospects portion of training camp is complete, it is time to turn the attention onto main camp and the job of building the 2017-18 Thunderbirds roster.  The biggest task?  Finding a way to replace over 350 points now gone from last season's championship club.

Seattle has a strength to build around.  They return five of their top six defenseman from the team that captured the Chynoweth Cup.  Of course, that one defenseman not returning won't be so easy to replace.  Ethan Bear is the reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, was an integral part of the T-birds very successful power play and was one of the top scoring defenseman in the league each of the past two seasons.  Those will be big skates to fill.

Still, the team returns a good mix of veterans and young and up and comers in their blue line crew.  They are led by a pair of 20 year olds in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand along with 19 year old Aaron Hyman.  Returning for his third season with the club is 18 year Montreal Canadians draft pick Jarret Tyszka while fellow 18 year old Reese Harsch enters his second year with the team after a solid rookie campaign.  

To fill the spot vacated by Bear the T-birds will use a combination of 2016 first round bantam pick Jake Lee and 17 year old Tyson Terretta.  While those two are officially entering their rookie seasons, both actually made their WHL debuts last year.  In fact Lee not only made his regular season debut with the team last season but also played in two playoff games as a 15 year old, twice taking the ice in the Western Conference Final versus Kelowna.

With the five players returning and the two rookies, Seattle essentially ices a group of defenseman with the same average age of the group that led them to the WHL title last spring.

Goaltending should be in good hands with 17 year old Carl Stankowski, who played every minute of Seattle's WHL playoff run, and 19 year old Matt Berlin. The unknown is the situation with an injury Stankowski suffered this summer while training with Canada's U-18 team.

The biggest question mark for the T-birds will be the forward group.  Look, no team is going to replace the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Scott Easnor, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True in one offseason.  Those are five players expected to play this coming season in either the NHL or AHL.  Those five were a once-in-a-generation group that, along with Bear, led this team to their first ever WHL championship.  Still, it took two to three seasons to develop their chemistry and reality says it will take a few seasons to develop the next generation of T-bird forwards.

They should have a solid top line centered by 20 year old Donovan Neuls, flanked on the wings by fourth year player Nolan Volcan and 18 year old Finnish import Sami Moilanen.  What the T-birds need to do is cobble together a second, third and fourth line from a group of youngster led by 18 year old center Matthew Wedman and 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown.

First year head coach Matt O'Dette and his new look coaching staff of Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, will be looking for returning players such as Zack Andrusiak, Luke Ormsby and Ian Briscoe, along with newly acquired Blake Bargar, to take the next step in their development while infusing the lineup with a number of rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk,Tyler Carpendale, Holden Katzalay, Russian import Nakita Malukhin and 16 year old Cody Savey.  The good news?  All but Malukhin and Katzalay have had a taste of the WHL.

I would also expect the team to keep a couple more untested 16-year old forwards, depending on which ones sign.  Two potential candidates are 2016 draftees Eric Fawkes and Nakodan Greyeyes.  I also wouldn't be surprised to see the team make a September trade for an 18 or 19 year old forward with WHL experience.  I'm not saying it will happen, because it all depends on cost in terms of draft capital and prospects, but should such a player become available I would expect General Manager Russ Farwell to at least kick the tires.

The team also has a decision to make on winger Tyler Adams who played a prominent role the second half of last season after being acquired from Swift Current in December.  Adams is one of four 20 year olds in camp fighting for three roster spots.  If Adams is retained, one of Neuls, Ottenbreit or Strand would have to be traded or released.  It may come down to which three of that foursome have the most value to this year's team as opposed to which of the four garners the most return in a trade.  This is a decision that probably won't be decided until the mid-October 20 year old cut down date.

One more thought as we embark on main camp and, next weekend, the preseason.  This will be my 17th season broadcasting Thunderbirds hockey.  Over that span I've seen firsthand the cyclical nature of the WHL.  Players come and players go as they push through in hopes of developing into pros.  Heck, the 20 year old players on the roster my first season with the club back in 2001, are now in their mid-30s.  When I began, my son was a one year old.  He's now entering his senior year of high school.  During that span a few hundred players have worn the Thunderbirds jersey, some for as many as five seasons and some maybe for as little as five games.

It has started to hit me though, how special this last group that just passed through, truly was. That I  won't see Barzal out there on the ShoWare Center ice to fire that last puck during pregame warmups.  I won't hear Kolesar's full-of-confidence, bellowing voice chirping someone, rookie, vet, it didn't matter, from the back of the bus or that, try as I might, I've missed my chance to turn Eansor away from the Denver Broncos and into a Seahawks fan.  There won't be any smiling, laid back "how's it goin'" greeting from Gropper any more as I walk down the hallway back near the locker room in search of a player interview and no more True lurking tall over everyone as he taped his stick outside the equipment room, his game face seemingly always on.

But what really made me think about this most recent passing of the torch was the noticeable absence of the dozen or so Bear jerseys and the many Bear family members who annually seemed to descend upon the ShoWare Center for the start of training camp these past five years.  It seems like only yesterday those six players arrived on the scene and blazed a trail to a championship and now, they're gone.

Man, I miss those guys already.



Friday, August 4, 2017

Helping Hands

As we get closer to the start of training camp and a new hockey season, the Thunderbirds have completed their new look coaching staff for 2017-18.   There are just two holdovers from the staff that brought the franchise its first ever WHL Championship.  Matt O'Dette is back, albeit in a new position, being elevated from assistant coach to head coach with the departure of Steve Konowalchuk to the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. Ian Gordon remains as the team's goaltending coach.

Gone, along with Konowalchuk, is Tyler Alos.  After four seasons as a T-birds player and four more as a T-birds assistant, Alos has taken a full-time job outside of hockey, although he will keep a toe in the water, I mean on the ice, by taking a part-time coaching position with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

I do want to take a moment to thank Tyler.  Both in his playing days and his time as an assistant coach he was always available for an interview.  I particularly appreciate him coming on our post-game show the past four seasons after home games, especially after a loss.  He never made excuses or ducked tough questions.  He was well spoken, both on and off mic.  He never missed a chance to praise an unsung player for putting in hard work and doing the little things that made a difference in a game.  It was enjoyable to watch his transition from player to coach and to see his evolution as an assistant coach as he took on more responsibility each season. He did this while taking advantage of the WHL's education program, attending college classes (even if they were through WSU, go Dawgs!).  He was integral to the success this team had the last four years and he will be missed.

With O'Dette elevated to head coach and Alos leaving the organization, the T-birds spent the summer seeking two replacements. In early July Seattle hired Kyle Hagel to take over as the primary assistant coach, basically filling the role O'Dette occupied the past four seasons.  Hagel comes to the T-birds after a nine year playing career, primarily in the AHL, including one season as a teammate of O'Dette's in Fresno.

This week the T-birds completed the coaching hires with the addition of Castan Sommer, who will take over the Alos role.  LIke Hagel, Sommer joins Seattle directly from the playing ranks, having spent last season with Kallinge/Ronneby, a Division 1 team in Sweden.  The year before that he was with the ECHL's Manchester Monarchs.

While the 32 year old Hagel is new to the coaching game, Sommer, who turns 26 in late October, has some experience in that department having served as a skating coach at the San Jose Sharks Development Camp in 2016.  Both of the new assistants also played four seasons of college hockey.  Hagel, a native of Hamilton, Ontario attended Princeton while Sommer, a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts native matriculated at Holy Cross.

The Thunderbirds also made one player move this past week.  General Manager Russ Farwell sent 19 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop to the Victoria Royals in exchange for 19 year old right winger Blake Bargar.  The deal allows Bishop to play his natural position back on the blue line. In his only season with Seattle, Bishop split time between defense and forward but probably skated more as a forward. 

Playing on the wing, Bishop was getting ice time so he didn't complain and in the end, it got his name on the Chynoweth Cup.  His preference though, is to be a defenseman and I'm sure that's how the Royals plan to use him.  In Kent, it may have been difficult for him to crack the top six defensemen this coming season with five veterans returning (Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand, Jarret Tyszka, Aaron Hyman and Reese Harsch) plus at least two highly regarded rookies (Jake Lee and Tyson Terretta) needing ice time as well.

In return, Seattle gets the Californian, Bargar.  I'm just theorizing here but it is my guess that Bargar gets a role similar to what the T-birds envisioned for Tyler Adams when they acquired Adams at the trade deadline last season from Swift Current; an older forward to play on the third or fourth line and protect some of the younger players.  Of course, because of injuries, Adams seldom played that role with the Thunderbirds, often playing on the first or second line.  While Adams made the most of it, knock on wood that isn't the case again this season with Bargar in that role.  It would mean the T-birds once again are dealing with injuries to top end players.

So, less then a month before players begin reporting for training camp, the T-birds new look coaching staff is in place.  Despite the 90-plus degree temperatures of early August, the ice is now back in at the Accesso ShoWare Center.  It's just about time to get down to the business of hockey.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You Bet, it's O'Dette

I don't know if it was the worst kept secret in Thunderbirds history, but I would suspect very few are surprised that Seattle General Manager Russ Farwell has tapped Matt O'Dette to succeed Steve Konowalchuk as the team's head coach.

O'Dette spent the past four seasons as the Thunderbirds primary assistant coach, Konowalchuk's right hand man.  Along with assistant coach Tyler Alos and goaltending coach Ian Gordon they formed a coaching staff that took the franchise to heights they've never experienced.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and by promoting O'Dette the T-Birds franchise will have as much coaching continuity as is possible, after you lose the main man, as they transition off their championship season.

O'Dette has head coaching experience on his resume, having served as a head coach in the ECHL prior to joining Konowalchuk's staff.  He won't be overwhelmed by the increased responsibilities. But the reality is, it is his experience as a T-Birds assistant coach that put him above the pack in the coaching search.  It was his time working with the players he inherits on this team, and the familiarity he has with the younger players coming into the fold this next season, and the next few season's beyond this one, that made him such an attractive candidate to follow Konowalchuk as the main man behind the bench.

One of O'Dette's main roles the past four seasons has been to handle the defensive corps.  Since his arrival in the South Sound, the T-Birds have been one of the top penalty killing teams in the WHL as well and that too was an area he handled in the Konowalchuk regime.

He was a defenseman in his playing days in the OHL, AHL and ECHL.  In 1994 he was drafted into the NHL by the Florida Panthers.  During his time with the T-Birds he's helped mold two WHL Defenseman of the Year Award winners in Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear.  Since arriving in Kent, he helped those two, and now Jarret Tyszka get drafted into the NHL, while another, Turner Ottenbreit, has attended three NHL development camps.

There is a tendency to read into that then, that O'Dette would then be a "defensive-minded" coach.  But remember, all three of those NHL drafted players mentioned are 200-foot players. Theodore and Bear are the two highest scoring defensemen in franchise history and were among the top scoring defensemen in the league throughout their WHL careers.

I would not expect there to be too much change in the way the Thunderbirds play under O'Dette, compared to how they played with Konowalchuk at the helm. O'Dette played a significant role in shaping the T-Birds style of play the past four years and he learned a good deal working with Kono.  The key will be finding  a couple of assistants to add to O'Dette's staff who fit the T-Birds style.

O'Dette begins his head coaching tenure with the T-Birds in a similar fashion to how Konowalchuk began his, with a roster in transition.  Like Konowalchuk, O'Dette will have some solid WHL veterans to work with but will get the opportunity to develop a roster over the next two seasons that will feature a lot of fresh faces.  Gone is the core group of Barzal, Eansor, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear that led this team the last four seasons.  O'Dette will get to build a new core group to carry this club.  The one major difference for O'Dette is those veterans and even some of those younger players he inherits, know what it takes to earn the title "Champions".

Another bit of history was made with the O'Dette hire.  He becomes the first head coach in franchise history to have a Twitter account.  Don't expect a lot of tweets though.  Even before being named head coach, his tweets were few and far between.  No surprise that his tweets are all team or hockey related.  His last one?  Congrats to ! Absolute steal of a pick by the .   That was after Tyszka was drafted by the Canadiens back in June.








Thursday, June 29, 2017

Who's Next?

For the second time in less then a decade, the Seattle Thunderbirds franchise is at a crossroads.  The team is in search of a head coach to lead them going forward. The situation today is both eerily similar and vastly different then it was in the spring of 2011.

In the spring of 2011, the T-bird had just finished up their second consecutive non-playoff season.  As a result General Manager Russ Farwell parted company with head coach Rob Sumner after seven years behind the bench.  They were an older team that year but lacked more then a few top end players.  The team knew that they would still have some veterans back the next season but would be transitioning over the course of the next couple of years and becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

And now, here we are today in another transition period, after the man who replaced Sumner, Steve Konowalchuk leaves for a job in the NHL.  Instead of coming off back-to-back non playoff years though, the T-birds are coming off consecutive appearances in the league's championship series, including winning it all this spring.  But like 2011, while the team still has some quality veterans returning for next season, over the next couple of years they will be transitioning, becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

In the spring of 2011 they captured lightning in a bottle and found the perfect marriage between coach and roster when they chose Konowalchuk to lead them from the bottom of the WHL standings to the top.  Each season under his leadership they got better and as we noted above, it culminated in the franchise's first ever Chynoweth Cup.

The question becomes, can they capture lightning a second time because this next hire is just as important as the last.  The core group of players who helped lead the franchise to its greatest successes is now gone.  Younger players are standing by ready to take their place.  The S.S. Thunderbird needs a captain to get them all rowing in unison and in the right direction.

Over the course of his coaching tenure with the T-birds it seemed that the organization brought in players who fit what Konowalchuk wanted for his roster. While that may have some truth to it, let's give the players credit for adapting to his coaching style and the coach credit for adapting his systems to the talent he had on his roster.  He convinced his players they could succeed with his style.  That's the trick isn't it?  To find that perfect balance between player talent and coaching acumen.  Konowalchuk was able to find that balance.

My memory is a bit sketchy but what I seem to recall from the Konowalchuk hire back in the spring of 2011 is that he wasn't necessarily aggressively seeking the job.  That instead Farwell identified him as someone who would fit well as a head coach at the WHL level and he convinced him to take the position.  Farwell, to use a word you here a lot in politics when political parties are seeking out candidates, "vetted" Kono.

I like that word, "vetted".  It means to investigate someone thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job.  I'm guessing Farwell has already received dozens and dozens of inquiries into the T-birds coaching vacancy. Once again, he must do some vetting of those candidates.  Once again he has to find the perfect match between roster and coach.  Once again he has to find that one candidate out their who has that "it" factor that separates the also-rans, the run-of-the-mill coach, the average coach from the great one who can lead a roster of young men to be their best.  He doesn't have to find a Konowalchuk clone, just someone with the same Konowalchuk qualities.

The time frame to make the hire is much smaller then it was in 2011.  Konowalchuk's decision to move on came well into the offseason.  Most teams, at all levels, have completed their hires for next season. T-birds training camp is just two months away. So yes, there is a sense of urgency but Farwell has been around the block a few times.  He knows he can't rush to make this hire just for the sake of hiring someone.  Getting it right is more important than getting it done.

For the second time in less then a decade the T-birds franchise is at a crossroads.  Which path will they choose as they move forward?



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kono is Gono

You know the old expression, "Time flies when you're having fun?"  Well the last six seasons of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey have seemingly flown by in an instant.  They've been six fun years.  I had a front row seat watching this team come out of a couple of seasons of a non-playoff funk and build towards a championship caliber team.  Winning hockey is fun hockey and it's a lot more fun to be around a winning atmosphere.

Steve Konowalchuk made it that way. Oh, it wasn't all fun and games with Kono at the helm.  He demanded a lot from his players.  He ran tough, grueling practices.  At times he was matter-of-fact brutally honest with his players and that included high NHL draft picks.  But he did it without throwing any one player under the bus.  In the locker room, on the bench or on the team bus was as far as it went.  Never in a radio interview, never in the newspaper or on any blog on the internet.

He stressed that to be a champion you had to practice like a champion, you had to train like a champion.  It wasn't just about the sixty minutes on game nights.  It was also about what you did leading up to game nights to prepare yourself.  He constantly emphasized to his team you can't take shortcuts.  That was something he never did as a player, and never did during his T-birds coaching tenure.

He took losses hard but instead of letting a defeat eat away at him, he used it as motivation, as fuel to make himself a better coach and make his players a better team.  He passed that along to his players. That's a big reason why, in his final season behind the T-birds bench, his team captured the franchise's first ever WHL Championship.   Individually he may not have had the deepest, or most talented roster, but he had the best team.  He got players to buy into their roles.

Not a lot of coaches get to leave on their own terms.  What's the adage?   Coaches are hired to be fired.  But Konowalchuk leaves the T-birds as a champion, heading back to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks after six seasons in Kent.  He leaves with a resume filled with more accomplishments then any previous coach in Thunderbirds history.  If you ask those who've been around the team the past six years for one word to describe him I think 10 out of 10 would say "competitor".   He has a drive to succeed at whatever he does.  He has set the bar high for who ever takes over.

But there is nothing left for him to prove at this level, he's reached the mountain top of the WHL.  By next October, seven banners will hang from the ShoWare Center rafters.  It took well over 30 years to earn the first three.  Konowalchuk brought the next four into the building in just six years.  He helped create a winning culture.

It seems it was just yesterday that I was interviewing Kono up in the Heritage Bank Lounge at the ShoWare Center after he had been announced as the T-birds new head coach shortly after the 2010-11 season had ended.  A lot of ice has melted since then, and there were hundreds of off mic chats and on the record interviews along with countless bus rides and team meals along the way.  Yep, time flies when you're having fun.