Wednesday, May 18, 2016

That's a Wrap

Let the debate begin now as to whether the 2015-16 season was the best in franchise history. Lots of arguments can be made to push it to the top. Second most wins in franchise history, second most wins on home ice. The team claimed a U.S. Division banner, their third but first in 11 years. They overcame a nine point deficit in the standings with just 20 games remaining. They finished the regular season on a 13-0-1-0 run and the only loss, in overtime, came in a meaningless game the final weekend of the regular season, after they had clinched first place in the division and rested a few players. After 19 seasons, they won their second ever Western Conference Championship by rolling through their first three playoff opponents, going 12-1.

They finished the WHL regular season with the top ranked penalty kill and were #3 on the power play. Only two teams in the league allowed fewer then Seattle's 186 goals against. They accomplished all they did despite having only one player, Mathew Barzal, in the top 30 in league scoring which may be the most telling point of all when you start talking about the Thunderbirds best "team" of all time.

Best-in-franchise-history teams are defined by what they do in the playoffs. This year's team went 13-5 in postseason play with three of their five losses in overtime, including the first three games of the championship series. They easily surpassed their 8-7 postseason record the last time they made it to the WHL Championship Series back in 1997. By virtue of their 6-1 win in Game 4 versus Brandon, this T-birds team won one more game in the league final then did the '97 team that was swept by Lethbridge. When you combine regular season and postseason the 2015-16 T-birds won 58 games, tying it with the 1989-90 team for the most in franchise history. That 1989-90 team won 52 games in the regular season but only six in the playoffs and failed to make the league final.

So, is this the best T-bird team of all time? This group of players is certainly in the conversation. The season started well, even with key players not available at the start of the year. Seattle went 7-2-1-0 in their first ten games. They were 9-2-1-0 by the end of October. A couple of injuries just before their swing through the Central Division in early November, sidetracked them a bit. They returned from their Alberta sojourn though and promptly went 6-1-1-0.

Seattle reached December and fought through more player absences with their top three centers away at World Juniors, plus an injury or two. They still were able to play .500 hockey to end 2015. Seattle adjusted their roster a week into the new year, trading for Landon Bow, Cavin Leth, Andreas Schumacher, Bryan Allbee and Garan Magnes. It took almost a month to get the chemistry right, as they continued to play at a break even pace, but when they did finally get it going, they were nearly unstoppable, going 18-4-1-0 from the start of February until the end of the regular season in late March.

In the end, this team lived up to the expectations of others, if not their own. They were just one of four WHL teams ranked in the BMO CHL Top Ten preseason poll slotted at #7. The only team from the Western Conference to rank ahead of them was Kelowna at #4 and they vanquished them in the conference finals. In the end, the only WHL team to best them was Brandon and the Wheat Kings were ranked #1 before the season began. Certainly no shame in losing to the top ranked team in all of the CHL.

So I cast my vote, and say yes, this is the best T-birds team in franchise history.....for now. Stay tuned, you never know, but you have to believe the best is yet to come.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Lingering Affects

You often hear it is easier to lose and move on from a no doubter 6-1 loss, then to lose 2-1 and spend the next week, month or year wondering, "what if?". Because, you see, hindsight is 20/20 and we can always look back and find a dozen ways we could have reversed the fortunes from such a close loss. Sort of like what just transpired in the WHL Championship Series.

Unfortunately, the T-birds lost too many close games in that series with Brandon to just so easily move past it. The sting of the losses will linger a little bit. While, as I've written before, Brandon was probably the better team over the course of the series, it wasn't by such a wide margin that you can't see points in those four losses that could have turned the series in Seattle's favor.

The better team doesn't always claim the crown and Seattle was good enough to beat the favorites from the east. The Wheat Kings could try to replicate the "quirkiness" of their first two overtime winning goals and probably fail 999 times out of a thousand. You could give Ethan Bear a million more attempts to clear that puck from in front of the T-birds goal in the third period of Game 2 and he'd probably safely clear it each time and the Thunderbirds would hold on to their 2-1 lead. It just happened to be that million and one chance that deflected in off the leg of Brandon's Tyler Coulter and ricocheted back into the Seattle net. Maybe it was fate, karma or a preordained deal with the hockey gods, but whatever, it just seemed everything in that series was transpiring against the T-birds.

Just enough things happening that make you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering, "What if?"

Game 1: Seattle controlled much of the first 16 to 17 minutes of the first period. They didn’t allow Brandon their first shot on goal until almost 11 minutes into the game. The T-birds had the first 4 or 5 quality scoring chances. They had the game’s first power play, created by their aggressive forecheck. But Seattle didn’t reward themselves for all that hard work. They were stopped on a breakaway. They didn’t convert on a couple of shorthanded odd man rushes either. Had Seattle scored on a couple of those glorious opportunities who knows how it might have changed their fortunes in that game or in the series. The T-birds did take a 2-1 lead 30-seconds into the third but had they buried the earlier opportunities they would have been adding to a lead, not protecting a one goal advantage. Once Brandon tied it four minutes later the Wheat Kings took over control of the game and the overtime period, winning 3-2 on an improbable carom off the back glass. The old saying is you can't win a game in the first period, but you can sure lose it, rings true here.

Game 2: A more even effort for Seattle over 60 minutes of regulation. Again Seattle failed to finish some chances. Midway through the third they scored to take a 2-1 lead. Not long after that goal though, the Ethan Bear zone-clearing shot from in front of the Seattle crease, deflected off Coulter and ricocheted back into the Seattle net. Before that, Seattle had the lead and the momentum and in the blink of an eye, it was gone. Even more upsetting is that Bear was probably Seattle's best player in Game 2, but it is forgotten because of one play. Once again Brandon controlled the overtime period and would win, 3-2 but once again the winning goal comes from a most severe angle and just catches the perfect deflection to find the back of the net.

Game 3: Seattle fell behind early but thanks to their power play scored two quick goals to grab a 2-1 lead that would carry to the midway point of the third period. Before that though, Scott Eansor hit the cross bar with a first period shot that would have extended Seattle’s lead to 3-1. Also in that first period, Matt Barzal was stopped on a breakaway, using a move that he’s probably scored on 99 times out of 100 in his lifetime. Then in the third period, while skating 4-on-4, Cavin Leth and Alexander True broke into the Wheat Kings zone on a 2-on-1. Leth deked and got Brandon goalie Jordan Papirny to flinch, opening up the top half of the net. Leth snapped his shot. It rang off the crossbar. Minutes later Brandon would tie the game at 2-2. Again the Wheat Kings would be the better team in OT, winning for the third straight game, 3-2.

Game 5: Seattle fell two goals down for the first time in the series when the Wheat Kings scored early in the second period to go up 3-1. Seattle roared back. First Josh Uhrich tipped in a Jerret Tyszka point shot to close within a goal. 30-seconds later Jerret Smith tied it with a power play goal. Just past the midway point of the second period True skated into the slot and snapped a shot past Papirny, giving Seattle their last lead, 4-3. All the momentum was on the T-birds side. The crowd was loud, the ShoWare Center was rockin’. But with less than two minutes left in the period Seattle turned the puck over just outside their own blue line. The Wheat Kings scored off a 2-on-1 rush to tie the game. Tied at 4-4, Brandon dominated the third period, pulling away for an 8-4 win and clinching the championship.

If this were a game of horseshoes, close but not quite would count for more. In a league final, it just leaves you wondering, "What if?".

I want to say a few words on Seattle's parting 20 year olds, especially Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf who spent their entire WHL careers with the T-birds. Obviously Landon Bow was tremendous in his time with the organization. Seattle might not make it to the Championship Series without him. Bow was listed as number two for playoff MVP on a lot of media ballots, just behind Brandon's Nolan Patrick. That's how good he was.

But Bow only spent four months, albeit four glorious months, but still just four months, with the T-birds after being acquired from Swift Current in early January. Smith and Hauf meanwhile spent four and five seasons respectively with Seattle. I still remember being introduced to Hauf for the first time when he was just 15. It was at his first training camp in August of 2010, just a few months after the T-birds had selected him in the first round, fourth overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Hauf had an arm injury that summer and didn't get to skate at camp. Here he was though, this tall, gangly kid from Calgary. Like all these players when they come to their first camp, he had that sorta stunned, awkward but smiling can't-believe-I'm-here look on his face as he shook my hand back in the T-bird offices. I'm sure I was just another face to him, probably the 100th person he had been introduced to that day.

Over the next couple of seasons he would get thrown into the fray, rarely a healthy scratch even at age 16, usually paired up on the ice with another 16 year rookie defenseman named Shea Theodore. No matter what, Steve Konowalchuk, then in his first season as head coach, kept throwing the two of them out there; baptism by fire. 56 games that first season. Hauf got bigger and he got better and this past season was unquestionably his best. He played with more confidence then he had his previous four seasons. It's hard to quantify leadership but Hauf had it. I saw it firsthand on the bus and on the ice. It was a matter-of-fact kind of approach he took to taking on that leadership role this season. I witnessed him talk to a couple of rookies early in the season. What he had to say, he only had to say once. He had their respect.

So to look back at that first encounter with him nearly six years ago, in the back office of the ShoWare Center, and to see how far he has traveled in his T-bird journey is remarkable. He went from an impressionable, wide-eyed kid to a mature young man who led this team to a WHL Championship Series.

Jerret Smith's T-birds journey was a little different. Unlike Hauf, Smith wasn't selected in the 2010 Bantam Draft. Instead at some point Seattle added him to their protected list. He didn't make the team as a 16 year old, the T-birds already had two 16 year old d-men on the roster that year in Hauf and Theodore and had drafted another in Taylor Green. I do remember, about midway through the 2011-12 season, coming to the ShoWare Center to get ready for a bus trip and a road game. The morning skate had wrapped up but there were a couple of listed prospects still on the ice, skating with one of the coaches. One of those players was Jerret Smith. I didn't think much of it at the time. Prospects, whether drafted or listed, often come up to skate with the team, some are never seen again. I didn't see Smith again until training camp before the 2012-13 season. Smith didn't jump out and wow me at camp, but you noticed him. He was steady, consistent and skated with confidence. He seemed to be a little more mature then the other players his age.

Before you knew it, not only had Smitty made the team, but he played in 71 games as a 17 year old rookie. And then he played in 72 games the next season and 72 more games in the season after that. Smith became reliable, someone the coaches could pencil into the lineup every night and he would be one of the tops on the team in minutes played. He appeared to be in line for another 72 game season this year as well. Then he got hurt in early February and you wondered if his T-bird days would end prematurely. For the first time in his T-birds career, he was out of the lineup. He would miss six games. It wasn't a career threatening injury, but it was one that required attention. In fact, it probably would have been better for him to step away and heal up properly. Instead he decided to play through the pain and discomfort.

I asked him why he didn’t take the other route and step away so he could be 100 percent healthy if he were to be invited to an NHL camp this coming fall. He gave me a couple of reasons. One reason was he wasn't sure he'd done enough to catch the scouts attention and wanted that final month and a half of the regular season and the playoffs to try earning a pro contract.

But his main reason for sticking it out and enduring the pain and discomfort was for the most unselfish reason of all. He didn’t say because he wanted to win a championship. That never came up. He said, “I want to finish the season with them (his teammates)”. He said they had a special group inside that locker room and he couldn’t walk away. He had to stay around for them. He was their leader. That’s what a captain does. He played not for the name on the back of the jersey but the name on the front; the team and all his teammates, his band of brothers.

Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, one from British Columbia, the other from Alberta. Joined together by their partnership on the ice, and by their leadership off it. A pairing that will always be linked together in Thunderbird history because it led to two banners rising to the rafters of the ShoWare Center. We won't see either next fall as they move on now, but when those banners rise, a piece of both of them will rise with them and remain forever.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

United Nation

At the end we can admit that Brandon was the better team. A lot better? No. I mean, three overtimes, Seattle had the lead in all five games, four times they had the lead in the third period and tied starting the third period of the decisive 5th game. Outside a couple of meaningless empty netters the goal scoring in the series was pretty even. The Thunderbirds actually held the lead for more minutes in the series then did Brandon.

But you don’t have to be better by very much to be a champion. You just have to be one goal better, one shift better or get one more fortunate bounce. In the end, the Wheat Kings were a determined group, eager to erase the bad taste of being swept in last year’s championship series by Kelowna. They are worthy champions.

You never feel good after you lose. You feel even worse after you fall three wins short of your ultimate goal. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has said it is only a successful season if you are the last team standing and hoisting that Cup. So I’m sure right now there is a bitter taste in his mouth and the mouths of those other coaches and the players after coming so close. The sting of the defeat will linger for a bit but in time I hope they come to realize there were many successes realized as a result of these past nine months, a U.S. Division banner, a Western Conference Championship chief among them, and hopefully they find some time to celebrate them.

I don’t know if this was the singular best season of hockey in franchise history, it’s right up there. It was certainly the best season since I started with the organization in 2001. They not only won on the ice, but this group won over the fans. They made the ShoWare Center a place to be. I don’t know that you can say Kent is now a hockey town. The ShoWare Center is more of a community gathering place for the fans that come from throughout the area. So I’d say, because of this group of players, Kent is now a hockey destination. And this team more than anything, with a few star players but mostly a collection of dedicated-to-their-craft, hard working grinders with a never quit attitude, reflected the soul of our South Sound region.

Let’s not forget that this franchise had to rebuild its fan base after the move down from KeyArena in January of 2009. I’m amazed by the fans that stuck with this team when they relocated. 25 miles doesn’t seem like a lot but with the local traffic being what it is during the afternoon drive 25 miles can seem like 25 hours when you are stuck in afternoon traffic on I-5, I-405 or the Valley Freeway. That’s dedication. You, the longtime fans, have shown your loyalty. You are the core, the backbone of this fan base and you are appreciated and deserve a stick tap.

But many fans from the Key and Mercer Arena days, for various reasons, whether it was the distance, the commute or something else, stayed north. Steadily over the past eight seasons the organization has introduced this game, and this brand of hockey to a new following. And this year’s team in particular, with what they accomplished over the course of the regular season and through the playoffs, helped bring together T-birds Nation. Fans are no longer saying “I’m a T-bird fan”, they are saying “We are T-bird fans”.

We don't want to let go of this unforgettable season, this team, this collection of young men. Heck some of them really are still kids at heart. We want to suspend time so we can come back tomorrow and see these guys play together one more game. For the first time since I began broadcasting T-birds games 15 years ago, I saw fans shedding tears at game's end. We want to see Smitty with one more push of the puck up ice, one last bone-jarring hit from Hauf, one more spectacular save from Bow. But this level of hockey is cyclical. Rosters turn over every three years. All we can do is hold on to the memories and wish those players moving on the best as they go forward with their hockey careers, with their lives, knowing once a T-bird, always a T-bird.

When the game ended and the Wheat Kings celebration began Friday night, the dejected and despondent Seattle players were stunned by the finality of the moment. Many were bent over exhausted. They were hanging their heads or leaning on their sticks, some trying to console others. You the fans then rose up out of your seat and without any prompting began chanting “Let’s go T-birds, Let’s go T-birds” over and over and over. You lifted those players back up. In time you would give Brandon their deserved congratulations, but in that moment it was as if the Wheat Kings weren’t even on the ice. You wanted to show your team how much you appreciated the season they just gave you; a magical season of wins and banners, highs and lows, thrills and spills that won’t be soon forgotten. Well done T-Birds Nation.

Stay tuned to this blog as I will be doing a final review and a look ahead over the next week or so.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Down, Definitely Not Out

Two close games, two overtime games, two winnable games, two punch-to-the-gut type losses. That's playoff hockey. A bounce here, a missed chance there. The difference between winning or losing at this time of the postseason is razor thin.

Despite those tough-to-take losses, this is still a series. It could easily be Seattle up 2-0, or the series could just as easily be tied at 1-1, but it's not. Seattle is in a 2-0 hole but it is not a hole they can't climb out of, especially with the next three games slated for the ShoWare Center. If Seattle can do what they've done on home ice all season, 35-6-2-0 when you combine regular and postseason play, they can get back in this series.

What will it take? First, Seattle has to throw more pucks on net, get more traffic in front of the Brandon goal and then finish their chances. You can lament how "flukey" or "lucky" some of the Wheat Kings goals have been in the first two games but the bottom line is this; those pucks went in because they put those pucks toward the Seattle goal then went hard to the net. Luck? Maybe. Flukey? Maybe. Earned? Yes. In a series where the difference between these two teams is so minimal, that one extra shot that creates that bounce could turn the game your way. It did for Brandon twice.

Secondly, Seattle needs to start getting some of those breaks. They need one of those good bounces or odd caroms to end up in the back of the Brandon net instead of theirs. But this circles back to the first point. You create that sort of luck by creating more scoring opportunities. What's the adage? Good luck is the residue of hard work. This is a low scoring, defensive series so far with both goalies at the top of their game. There have been just ten goals scored between the two teams in over 132 minutes of hockey. The T-birds have just four and that's not been enough. Finish, finish, finish.

What a great atmosphere for the first two games at Westman Place in Brandon. This is a city of about 46,000 and 56,000 people in the metro area. This is their team, it's the only game in town, and they support them tremendously well. But we've seen this season how the home crowd at the ShoWare Center energizes the T-birds. Time for the Seattle crowd to match the intensity we saw in Games 1 and 2.

Most of the media covering the first two games had not seen Seattle play up close and personal. Seattle didn't make it to Brandon during the regular season and the U.S. based WHL clubs just don't get that much press north of the border. So many, seeing them play for the first time, expressed how impressed they were with the team's structure. It's always nice to hear that from objective third parties. In case you didn't know it, Steve Konowalchuk and his staff are doing a terrific job preparing this team.

In that same vein, if you are attending the games at the ShoWare Center this week you're going to see some top end Major Junior talent on the other side. This is a very good Wheat Kings roster. If not for his late birthdate, Nolan Patrick would be a sure fire first round NHL draft pick in June. He certainly will be in 2017 when he finally becomes eligible for the draft and could be one of the top players picked.

He only has one assist in the first two games but I've liked the game of Alexander True. I think he has been Seattle's most consistent face-off guy, has been a strong penalty killer and he is creating some offensive chances. Again, it comes down to needing to finish. Scott Eansor continues to play with his high motor and Landon Bow, well he just continues to be Landon Bow.

Just before the WHL Championship Series began the league held it's annual Bantam draft in Calgary last Thursday. Seattle made eight selections, led by first round pick Jake Lee, a defenseman from Sherwood Park, Alberta. T-Birds Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson described Lee as a good two-way d-man with good size. Seattle also selected three players from the Winnipeg area and I understand a couple of them came down to Brandon on their own to cheer on the T-birds.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

It's Final-ly Here

So, is it a one week wait that is coming to an end this Friday (since last game, Game 4 vs. Kelowna) or is a 19 year wait (Seattle's last appearance in the WHL Final). Depends on your perspective but many of you out there have been hard core fans for a long time. Soak it up.

I don't make predictions. I find such things an exercise in futility. As each playoff series began I saw seven games on the schedule and I prepared for a seven game series whether it was Prince George, Everett or Kelowna. The players and coaches approach it a bit game at a time. When you get to the postseason, you are playing the cream of the crop. You should expect a long battle.

You can certainly try to make an educated guess as to how things might unfold but you can never predict the bounce of a puck, how one officiating crew might call a game as opposed to another, or how an injury might turn a team's fortune. So instead of trying to predict how things might turn out, I just get ready to enjoy the ride. As a result I don't get surprised when a series ends early as it did in the first three rounds. And if it goes seven games as has been the case in past seasons, I'm ready for that. More importantly, so are the players and coaches. But these opportunities don't come along that often. Let's enjoy it rather then worry about how many games will take place or who is favored.

I'm looking forward to some really good hockey between Seattle and Brandon. The one thing I like about the WHL Final is the great deal of unknown. These teams only played against each other once this season and that was six months ago. Might as well be six years ago. So much has happened since that late October, 7-2, T-Birds win at the ShoWare Center. Remember, the Wheat Kings were towards the tail end of their five game road trek through the U.S. Division. As far as it's affect on this series, it doesn't even register a blip. Obviously there is so much more at stake this time around. Counting the rest of the regular season and playoffs the Thunderbirds have played 74 games since that night. That's an entire season's worth of games.

Let's give some props to the NHL scouts doing the voting in the BMO CHL Top 10 Poll. Before the season began, they had just four WHL team in their preseason Top Ten; Brandon and Seattle along with Kelowna and Red Deer. In their final poll, there were just three WHL teams; Victoria, Brandon and Seattle. When the dust settled the last two WHL teams standing are the Wheat Kings and Thunderbirds.

Amazing that these two teams are a combined 24-5 in the postseason. even more amazing when you realize that both clubs ended the regular season by going 9-0-1-0 in their last 10 games. So that's 42-5-2-0 when you put together their records over the last two months. Wait, lets back up even further. Seattle is 25-1-1-0 in their last 27 games while Brandon is 23-4-2-0 in their last 29. Two teams on a roll at the right time.

The midseason trade to bring in Landon Bow was, quite possibly, the best deadline acquisition in Thunderbirds history, but lets not shortchange the other players the T-Birds acquired from Swift Current after Christmas. Both Cavin Leth and Andreas Schumacher have been invaluable pieces to the puzzle. Seattle would not be in the league final without them. And with players missing playoff time due to either injury or suspension, two other deadline deal pick ups, Bryan Allbee and Garan Magnes, also contributed to the team's postseason success. It takes all hands on deck. That foursome has combined for 4g, 7a, 11 pts, one game winner and a +9 rating.

Before the Final gets underway Friday at Westman Place in Brandon the league will hold it's annual awards ceremony Wednesday in Calgary. Seattle captain Jerret Smith is the WHL's Western Conference representative for the Doug Wickenheiser Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Humanitarian of the Year. That's followed Thursday by the annual Bantam Draft, also taking place in Calgary. Seattle will have the 18th overall pick. We are expecting to have the T-Birds Director of Player Personnel, Cal Filson, on the Weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's Show that night at 6pm. So listen in on 1090 The Fan as we get the low down on Seattle's draft picks. Other guests will include Bruce Luebke, the voice of the Wheat Kings and of course T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk.