Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ode to the Ward-dog

I remember Evan Wardley's "first game" with the Thunderbirds. It was his only game of the 2010-11 season. I don't think he got one shift in that game. I think he got more air time then ice time that night as I interviewed him before the game for that night's radio broadcast. It was December 31st. The Thunderbirds, as they usually are, were down in Portland for the New Year's Eve matchup at what was then still called the Rose Garden. Seattle dressed seven defensemen that night; Bobbee, Ramsay, Bonsor, Dillon, Sutter and Baecker. The then 16 year Wardley was one of them too, but spent the game parked on the bench. The T-birds won the game when Luke Lockhart broke a 3-3 tie with just three and a half minutes left in the third period. Final score; Seattle 4, Portland 3. After the game Wardley returned to his midget team back in Alberta. It was as if he was never there.

So that was Wardley's inauspicious WHL debut. His name on the scoresheet and a great seat on the bench watching Seattle beat their fiercest rival. And this past weekend, Wardley's WHL and Thunderbirds career came full circle as he was on the bench when the Winterhawks Nic Petan scored late in overtime Tuesday to end the T-birds season in Round One of the playoffs. In between those two games Wardley became a fan favorite at the ShoWare Center in Kent and public enemy number one in many of the other venues the T-birds visited over the course of his four year WHL career.

The Vulcan, Alberta native was a 6th round selection by the T-birds in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, 122nd overall. He was taken one pick after Lethbridge chose Russell Maxwell, the same Maxwell who would spend the second half of the 2014-15 season as Wardley's teammate after Seattle acquired him from the Hurricanes at the trade deadline. He was drafted four spots ahead of Cole Wedman who went to Spokane. Wedman is the older brother of Matthew Wedman, a T-birds prospect who spent a week late this season practicing with Wardley and the T-birds. Hockey...there is always a connection, it seems, to everyone who plays the game.

In his career with the Thunderbirds Wardley earned a reputation for straddling the line with his physical play. Some of it was warranted, most of it was not. And while fans with other teams showed their disdain for his on-the-edge physical game, he is the kind of player you'd want on your team protecting your best assets. You want him on that wall, you need him on that wall.

Let me relate to you a story from early this season. Seattle was on their eastern swing. Wardley had just been suspended for the second time on the year for a checking-from-behind major in a loss in Saskatoon. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill hit but this was a case where Wardley's reputation probably got the better of him. But it meant Seattle would have to make due without their big, rugged defenseman for the rest of the road trip. Without him in the lineup, they went 1-4 the rest of the way.

On an off day, the team stopped in Grenfell, Saskatchewan to practice. There were a lot of onlookers at that practice. A good chunk of the town of Grenfell showed up. So did a good number of player's parents, especially those players from Saskatchewan who were following the team on their journey, among them a great many parents of Seattle's plethora of rookies. I engaged in a conversation with one of the dads and the subject of Wardley and his importance to this young team came up and he told me of an incident earlier that year that reinforced Wardley's role on a team with so many first year forwards.

He said his son was on the ice. It was one of his first shifts in the WHL. The teams were lining up for a face-off. As his son readied for the drop of the puck, an older player on the opposing team sidled up to him. According to his son this older player tried to intimidate him, telling him how hard he was going to hit him and he better prepare to get knocked around by him all night, that he was ready to inflict pain.

Before the puck is dropped though, he hears another voice...a familiar voice. Wardley has skated in behind the young Seattle player and the older opposing player. He's heard the one-sided conversation going on and Wardley feels it necessary to interject himself into the dialogue. "Just remember", Wardley tells this opposing player, "you hit him, I hit you harder".

As the dad is telling me this story I can see the wide eyed look on his son's face and the accompanying big smile. "Dad", he says, "that guy never touched me once the rest of the game!" I know there was a lot of debate about whether to keep Wardley on this team as a 20 year old, what with his penchant for penalties that could lead to suspensions, but that story is the best illustration of why keeping him was the right decision. You want him on that wall. You need him on that wall.

Wardley saved his best for last. His finest season as a T-bird was this last one, finishing with 22 points (6g,16a) and +7. But he also played his best when it mattered the most. In 22 playoff games over three seasons with Seattle, he registered six points (2g, 4a) and was +5. His game winning overtime goal in Game Three of the 2013 first round playoff series against Kelowna is probably the most electrifying moment in the five year history of the ShoWare Center.

Wardley got a long look at camp with the Montreal Canadians this past fall. Let's hope he's still on their radar. We certainly wish him the best going forward in his career. There's always room in this game for players like that who put their team and teammates first. There is always room on that wall for Evan Wardley.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An End, or Just a Beginning?

I commiserated along with the rest of you over the Thunderbirds Game Six and series loss for about an hour. Then I started to think about the game and the playoff series Scott Eansor just had and realized how fortunate I was to witness that effort. Then I realized I get to see that over the next two seasons. True definition of a gamer as he raised his level of play. Hard not to let that bring a smile to your face. That smile turned to an ear to ear grin when I stepped back and understood just how well this young team played. Not just in this series, but all season. You can't fault the effort or the passion they play with, no matter the final result.

In sports the word chemistry has been thrown around like a used penny so much it has become a bad cliché. Almost every team says they have it. Those that don't say it's over emphasized. Maybe chemistry is the wrong word. All I know is there is a thread that runs thought this team, from player to player, that puts them all on the same page. They're sympatico. The dictionary defines that as getting along and having mutual understanding with another. That's what I've seen all season long with this group and I don't expect it to change any time soon.

I will admit there have been times over the past 15 seasons that coming to the rink was more chore and less passion for me. That was never the case this season; not with this group. I was excited to get to the arena every night and watch this team grow, amazed at how fast so many rookies raised their game to the next level. I could lose three fingers on my right hand in a meat grinder accident and still use the fingers left over to count the number of times this team didn't give 60 minutes of effort.

Is it tough to lose a series you had equal opportunity to win? Sure it is. I'm sure as a player you go back and over-analyze your performance and nitpick at your mistakes or opportunities missed. It's probably much easier to digest if you had been swept in four. The hope is you learn from the experience moving forward.

Seattle overcame a first half without Shea Theodore. they overcame an injury that cost them the services of Matt Barzal for three months. They weathered through as Alexander True was knocked out for two months of the second half of the season with an arm injury. They overcame the loss of their captain, Justin Hickman, to season ending surgery. they made it through all that yet, in the end, I think they suffered one long term injury too many.

How significant was the loss of Keegan Kolesar? Kolesar missed the final month after being knocked out of action with an arm injury back on March 3rd in a game in Victoria. He was, essentially, a 20 goal scorer unavailable in the postseason for a team that didn't have the most prolific offense. But he was more then that. Kolesar is strong at both ends of the ice. He's a physical presence and a key part of the penalty kill. Would he have made that much of a difference in this series? We'll never know. Maybe with him Seattle at the least gets this series to Game Seven. You have to figure he was worth another goal or two for Seattle and maybe a goal or two less for Portland. That might translate to one more T-birds win.

In this series, Seattle, with one NHL draft pick, faced a Portland team with seven. Yet they battled down to the very end. In my opinion, the most talented player on the ice in the series was Theodore. The T-birds defenseman was a first round NHL draft pick for a reason. He logged a ton of ice time. In past years you could count on him for his offensive prowess. This season he raised his defensive game to a new level and became a more complete player. that showed against Portland. I think he's the most talented player to put on a Thunderbirds jersey in the last 15 years. I say that only because I think he has a higher ceiling then former Seattle defenseman Thomas Hickey. Of course over the next two seasons, Matt Barzal could surpass them both.

Just saw the final Central Scouting Service rankings for the 2015 NHL draft. There are four T-birds on the list, led by Barzal. No Alexander True in those rankings so it appears his injury cost him a spot on that list. But if I'm an NHL team, just based on his playoffs, I take a flyer on him. Although, if I'm honest, there are three things I have a hard time believing in as I get older; Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and CSS draft rankings. They are a nice guide for fans but NHL teams and their scouts will have a better idea of players standings then CSS. The teams spend a lot more time watching these players up close and personal.