Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thanks for The Memories Rob

Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell has made the difficult decision not to bring Rob Sumner back for an eighth season as the team's head coach. This ends a 14 year relationship between Rob and the organization, the first seven spent as an assistant coach.

I haven't spoken to either party involved but this has to be a sad day for both. I know it's a sad day for me. It had to be an agonizing conclusion for Russ to reach. I know he believed in Rob's ability to lead this team. I think Russ would be the first to admit that the roster Rob had to work with at times wasn't what he thought he was giving him, especially recently. Some draft picks just didn't work out.

I know there are some out there who are going to revel in this news. That's because they didn't know Rob. They only see the one dimensional side; the man behind the bench. Most have never spoken with him or had the chance to get to know him. I've been fortunate. I've known Rob since my first year with the organization, 2001. That's ten seasons of riding the bus, sharing pre and postgame meals and conducting countless interviews, not to mention the many conversations off microphone.

I got the chance to see firsthand his passion for the game as well as for the Thunderbirds organization. I remember his first few years behind the bench as head coach and how his emotion would sometimes get the better of him and he'd climb on top of the boards to make a point with the officials, only to end up with a penalty. He learned to tone down that emotion, writing a few checks to the league will do that, but it was always there inside.

I learned a good deal about the game from Rob. He has a very good grasp of the X and O's of this game. He is a solid coach; I witnessed that in practice and during games. I saw him many times jump off the team bus at two or three in the morning, after a long ride late into the night from Spokane, Kelowna or Tri-City, and go immediately into his office to look at video. No one wanted this team to win more than he did and he took every loss to heart and I know these past two seasons wore on him.

More importantly, Rob is a solid citizen. He has a wonderful family with two young boys he absolutely adores. If there is the tiniest silver lining to this, it is that he gets to spend more time with them...that is, until he can find his next gig. And I believe he will coach again. I think it's in his blood, but that is something he and his family will have to sit down and discuss because this profession requires a lot from you and takes a lot out of you.

What's the saying? Coaches are hired to be fired? Very seldom does a coach go out on their terms. As we all know, this is a bottom line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business and two straight seasons of non-playoff, sub .500 hockey will put any coach, no matter their pedigree, on the hotseat. So, the Rob Sumner era comes to an end with the T-birds. I'm glad to have been along for the ride and wish Rob the best in his future endeavors.

It's a sad day in Thunderbird Nation.

Monday, March 21, 2011


The end of the season (unless you win it all) is always a disappointment, whether it concludes with the last game of the regular season or in the playoffs. We'll find small comfort in the fact the T-Birds were in a battle for a playoff spot up until game 71, after being out of it in February a season ago, but it isn't enough to massage away the pain of missing out on the second season for a second consecutive year. It's too easy to play the "what if" game but the T-Birds know they left some important points on the table through the course of the season.

Sunday's overtime loss to Tri-City put an end to another chapter of T-Bird history. This chapter should be remembered for the remarkable story of Brenden Dillon. Undrafted as a bantam player five years ago, undrafted by the NHL two years ago, all he did was persevere and work hard to improve his craft the past four seasons and that dedication earned him a contract with the NHL's Dallas Stars. Brenden was expected to board a plane early this week, most likely headed to Austin, Texas, and the Star's AHL affiliate, to begin his pro career. Congratulations Dills!

While he's there, he can say hi to Eli Johnson, the T-Birds bus driver retired after a 15-year association with the Thunderbirds, and is also headed to Texas. He may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle for this organization to replace next season; he was that valuable. By the way that move by all the players to come off the bench and join Eli at center ice prior to the ceremonial puck drop Sunday was completely spontanious. The original plan was just to have Dillon present Eli with the framed jersey but then the rest of the team hopped over the boards. Great moment.

You had to feel for Travis Bobbee. He spent too much of the second half of his last season in the WHL with his shoulder in a sling, including the second half of the last game. Numbers don't lie. With Bobbee out of the lineup, the team was well below .500.

The best offseason move GM Russ Farwell made was to acquire Travis Toomey from Saskatoon. Toomey has maturity beyond his years. He provided tremendous leadership, played with an edge and tried to set a positive example for the younger players off the ice as well as on it. He took that role as a veteran on a young team very seriously and he took his role as an ambassador to the community just as seriously, taking time to make a weekly visits to a local elementary school. I don't know what his future plans are. I'm sure he wants to keep playing the game but he is so well spoken and so at ease with his words, I think he'd make a great analyst on TV or radio.

Who gets drafted higher by the NHL this June, Colin Jacobs or Marcel Noebels? Both put up good numbers and drew the attention of NHL scouts. Might make for a friendly wager between the two. Luke Lockhart, Mitch Elliot and Dave Sutter will also draw interest. Even Jacob Doty, who may have the biggest upside because he's still quite raw, could hear his name called.

Is there another Brenden Dillon on the roster, a player undrafted by the NHL who could sign by the time his 20-year-old season winds down? Chance Lund has that chance. He has the size, plays very physical and can skate like the wind, three ingredients the NHL is looking for. But he needs to work on his consistency from game to game and, more importantly, he needs to work on getting his shot on goal. If he can dedicate himself the way Dillion did, there is no reason he can't be a 20 goal scorer in the WHL. Gotta want it; gotta earn it.

The T-Birds will have the 5th choice in the 2011 Bantam draft coming up in early May. After selecting three defensemen in the first three rounds last year (Hauf, Green and Theodore) it would seem logical that they would be looking at a forward with their high pick this time around. I subscribe to the best-player-available theory though and if that happens to be a defenseman, so be it. I think if the last two non-playoff seasons have taught us anything, it is that you can never have too many defensemen. Only one every day defenseman on this year's roster, Eric Fleming, came to Seattle through the Bantam draft (Dillon was listed, not drafted) and Fleming missed much of the season due to injury. Aside from Dave Sutter, selected in the Import Draft last June, every other T-Bird defenseman who played significant minutes this past season, came to the team via trade. It's time to develop home grown talent for the blue line corps.

Offense shouldn't be a problem next season. The team should have four of its top five point producers back, including leading scorer Burke Gallimore. All four produced 20-plus goals and all should improve on those numbers next season. The elephant in the room is the status of Branden Troock and I don't have an answer to that question.

Seattle finished the year playing .500 hockey over its last 15 games (7-7-1-0). Everett went 1-8-2-0 in their last 11. Everett is moving on to the playoffs, the T-Birds are not. How can that be? Going 4-14-1-1 coming out of the Christmas break was too much for Seattle to overcome. The rest of the season the T-Birds played close to .500 hockey. It was the second year in a row the team came out flat after the holiday break (just 1-15-4-0 the year before). That will need to change next season if they want to advance to the playoffs. Somehow, some way, they need to be better prepared to restart the season after that two week midseason layoff.

As we go through withdrawal symptoms this offseason, remember, training camp is just five months away!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tri, Tri, Tri Again

Entering the month of March, we knew the T-Birds were going to have to play almost error free hockey over the final nine games in order to secure a playoff spot. We also knew that, well, that was a near impossible task because no one, not even the best teams, play error free hockey.

It's just that the T-Birds margin for error is so much slimmer than the other teams in the Western Conference playoff chase because they currently reside in last place in the ten team field. So, the fact the T-Birds have gone 3-2-0-0 so far this month, or the fact that over their last 10 games they have won twice as many games (6) as any of the other teams (Everett, Prince George and Kamloops 3 wins each) they're battling for those final two playoff spots, gets lost when you lose in the fashion the team did Saturday to the Cougars. It was a must-win game, a chance to pull within a point of a playoff spot and they didn't expend the effort needed to win the most important game of the season.

I'm going to expand on a subject I brought up last week; the bane of the T-Birds existence and the reason they may be left out of the playoff picture; the Tri-City Americans. Here's the breakdown for Seattle's season excluding Tri-City. Seattle is 8-8-2-1 against the B.C. Division with one game remaining Wednesday at Kelowna. That's a .500 record. Through March 5th, The Thunderbirds are 13-15-0-1 against the U.S. Division teams not named Tri-City; just slightly under .500. Against the 12-team Eastern Conference the 'Birds are 5-4-2-1 or, you guessed it,
around .500. That puts their overall record at nearly .500; 26-27-4-3...until you add in their numbers against the Americans. Seattle is 0-6-0-2 versus Tri-City with one game remaining. If the T-Birds could have done against Tri-City what they did against the rest of the league, which is to play a game under .500, they would probably be fighting for the 5th or 6th seed in the Western Confernce, rather than fighting for their playoff lives.

I bring this up because I'm kind of hoping it comes dowm to that final game of the regular season for Seattle. One game with a playoff spot on the line. Because the T-Birds final game of the regular season this Sunday is against Tri-City. What a great way to finish the year; earning a playoff spot on the last day and exorcising a demon in the process.

Here is the final pace to the playoffs chart. The numbers in parenthesis is the points earned, on average, per game so far this season. The number after that is games remaining An "X" denotes that team has clinched a playoff spot:

1. XPortland is on pace for 102.7 pts (1.426) 4
2 XKelowna* is on pace for 88.7 pts (1.23) 3
3. XSpokane is on pace for 101.647 pts (1.411) 4
4. XTri-City is on pace for 91.05 pts (1.26) 4
5. XVancouver is on pace for 75.17 pts (1.044) 4
6. XChilliwack is on pace for 74.08 pts (1.028) 3
7. Prince George is on pace for 67.88 pts (0.942) 2
8. Everett is on pace for 68.82 pts (0.955) 4
9. Kamloops is on pace for 64.8 pts (0.90) 2
10. Seattle is on pace for 64.58 pts (0.897) 4

* Kelowna, by winning the B.C. Division will get the #2 seed in the first round.

Still too tight to call for the top seed as Portland and Spokane may come down to their last meeting of the season, on the season's final day, to decide it. Of course the T-Birds could have a say in who gets the conference's top seed because they play both the Winterhawks and Chiefs once more each. Additionally the T-Birds could affect seeding for the second round as well. Kelowna could still pass Tri-City for the 3rd best record in the conference and that would come into play in determining which of those teams gets home ice in Round 2 should both advance and one of Portland or Spokane gets upset by a lower seed in Round 1. Seattle plays both the Rockets and Americans once more this season.

Even though the T-Birds have more games remaining then Prince George, the loss to the Cougars on Saturday means Seattle no longer controls their own fate, meaning if the 'Birds were to finish 4-0 they would need help getting into the postseason.

Games remaining:

Prince George: 2 (home and home series this weekend against Kamloops)

Everett: 4 All on the road (@ Portland, @ Spokane, @ Chilliwack and @ Vancouver)

Kamloops: 2 (home and home series this weekend against Prince George)

Seattle 4 2 @ home (Portland, Tri-City) and 2 on the road (@Kelowna, @ Spokane)

While the top four seeds in the Western Conference have been determined, it may not be until Sunday evening until we know the first round playoff pairings. Only two teams have locked in their first round seeding; Kelowna is the #2 seed and Tri-City is the #4 seed. Portland and Spokane have guarenteed home ice in Round 1 but like the Rockets and Ams, neither knows who its first round opponent will be. Likewise Vancouver and Chilliwack, even though both have earned a playoff berth and will start on the road, neither knows yet where to book the hotel reservations.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Closing the Gap

By winning three of their last four, and six of their last ten, the T-Birds have closed to within three points of a playoff spot with six games left. Meaningful hockey games in March, ya gotta love it.

From the strange-but-true department: Two seasons ago in early March, the T-Birds lost a game to Portland by the score of 9-1. They came back the next game to beat Everett (10-0 behind Kyle Jarhaus!). This year, they lose to Portland 9-1 in early March but rebound the next game to beat Everett (Gallimore with the OT game winner!). Deja vu' all over again! With that victory the 'Birds finish the regular season 5-5 against the 'Tips, reaching the .500 mark against their U.S. Division rivals by winning the last three head-to-head meetings.

Also, was that not just the most fitting end to a game you've witnessed? Gallimore misses the game the night before in Portland because of the passing of his grandfather. He returns from his home in Edmonton in time for the game against the Silvertips and scores the winning power-play goal in the overtime period, and immediately looks to the heavens as if to say, "Thanks for the assist gramps!" You couldn't have written the script any better. Well done Burke. And kudos to Ryan Button for acknowledging his good friend Burke and the relationship Burke had with his grandfather in the post game interview down on the ice. Like Gallimore, Button is from Edmonton and the two have known each other for many years.

Meanwhile, is Button running for Mayor of Kent? Great salute to the crowd in his postgame comments as well.

I'm going to make this suggestion for the T-Birds when they are putting together next season's schedule at the league meetings this summer. When it gets to the point where league president Ron Robison says, "Okay now let's fill in the January dates." A T-Birds representative must stand up and say something to the affect of "Mr. President, if you don't have any objections, the Thunderbirds are gonna skip January. We'd prefer to call it December II or December Squared, anything but January." Why? Well, Seattle's record in the month of January over the last three seasons is just 9-24-4-2; 3-18-4-1 the past two seasons alone. They've recovered well enough through February and March during that time span to play close to .500 hockey (22-24-2-2), but January has become their Achilles heel. The only other option might be to invoke the Grinch Clause, cancel Christmas and keep the player in town for the holidays. I don't see that happening.

As we know, Seattle's other bane of existence the past three seasons has been road games in Kennewick. The 'Birds haven't won a regulation game there in three-plus seasons. But, if the T-Birds miss the playoffs this year by a point or two, they may look back to two first half home games against Tri-City in which they held late third period leads. In both cases Seattle failed to hold the leads (in one instance it was a two goal lead with 2:30 left) and lost in a shootout each time. Ironically the T-Birds playoff hopes could come down to the final regular season game this season...at home against, you guessed it, Tri-City.

With their playoff lives on the line, The T-Birds have risen to the occasion. Whether they finish in or out of the postseason, they are not going down without a fight. With the exception of the clunker down in Portland, the 'Birds have competed hard in every game lately and are 6-4 in their last ten, going from five points out of a playoff spot to just three out with six games remaining. Over the last 10 games they've earned more points (12) than any of the other bottom four teams in the Western Conference. They've captured wins in three of their last four overall and they've also won five of their last six games at home, a home winning percentage they must continue with four home games remaining, especially with a red hot Chilliwack team coming to the ShoWare Center Friday.

Here is the updated pace-to-the playoffs heading into this week's action. The number in parenthesis is the points earned on average each game. The number after that is games remaining:

1. XPortland is on pace for 101.5 pts (1.41) 6
2. XKelowna is on pace for 85.3 pts (1.18) 7
3. XSpokane is on pace for 99.7 pts (1.38) 7
4. XTri-City is on pace for 92.25 pts (1.28) 8
5. Vancouver is on pace for 78.64 pts (1.09) 7
6. Everett is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 7
7. Chilliwack is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 8
8. Prince George is on pace for 67.63 pts (0.94) 6
9. Kamloops is on pace for 66.62 pts (0.925) 5
10. Seattle is on pace for 64.36 pts (0.893) 6

X denotes that team has clinched a playoff spot. Kelowna, as the first place team in the B.C. Division, is in position to earn the #2 seed in the conference for the first round of the postseason.

Seattle still has work to do and needs help to make the playoffs. Prince George (home vs. Red Deer Tues.), Everett (at Spokane Tues.), Kamloops (home vs. Tri-City Tues.) and Chiliwack (at Vancouver Weds.) all play one game before Seattle takes the ice again this coming weekend. So until Friday the T-Birds are fans of the Rebels, Chiefs, Americans and Giants.