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.