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.

1 comment:

  1. Wardley was a force on the ice. I wonder who will be able to protect the younger Tbirds now?