Thursday, October 12, 2017

What the Blazes? A Giant Win

In an early season schedule with very few games, Seattle got a taste of what's to come when they played three games in four nights this past week.  Despite a stumble at home in the first game, the T-birds came out of the week with a pair of wins and four points.

The ten spot allowed to Portland in the loss last Saturday is concerning but not as much as you'd think since the Winterhawks have been scoring at will against most of their opponents. It's not just a Seattle thing.  Seattle did not play well though, especially after an early Zack Andrusiak goal put then on top.
Portland's game is up tempo, push the pace, run and gun hockey.  For it to work they have to have puck possession.  To minimize it, you have to eliminate turnovers.  Way too many Seattle turnovers in that game.  The T-birds still scored five goals and that should be enough to win most nights.  This was not one of those nights.  In their two games against Portland, Seattle has allowed 17 goals against.  In their other five games, they've only allowed 11.

The T-birds didn't get the best goaltending in that loss either. But both Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes bounced back with solid efforts in Seattle's two wins.  Berlin made 32 saves Sunday in Kamloops, in a 4-3 win over the Blazers, and Hughes earned his first win as a Thunderbird on Tuesday with a 33 save effort (plus two more in the shootout), in a 3-2 win over Vancouver at the accesso ShoWare Center.

Seattle is getting solid early season play from their special teams.  The power play is clicking at just under 31 percent on 8-for-26 success.  The T-birds have been shorthanded 30 times in the first seven games but have only surrendered seven goals and two of those were scored while the opposition was skating 5-on-3.  

The T-birds got down to the 20 year old roster limit by placing Tyler Adams on long term injured reserve.  Adams needed hip surgery and has gone back home to Regina where he'll face a long recovery. By not releasing him Seattle could bring him back at some point later this season, although I'm not sure whether this type of surgery will allow Adams to play again at this level. 

Seattle GM Russ Farwell has made many under-the-radar trades over the last five or six seasons.  Taran Kozun comes to mind, but the Kozun deal still cost Seattle two players and two fourth round draft picks.  Meanwhile, Adams only cost Seattle a prospect, Mckenzie White.  Adams addition seemed to settle down the Thunderbirds when he came over last December. He became a multi-purpose tool as the T-birds were able to use him up and down their top four lines.  The ability to plug him in anywhere in the lineup when other players were out was a key to Seattle's run to the championship.

You don't want to toot a rookie's horn too loudly so early in the season.  You wouldn't want them to start reading their press clippings and begin thinking they've got it all figured out.  I don't think Dillon Hamaliuk is the type of player who would let praise go to his head.  At least for now it appears he's found a spot on the T-birds second line with Noah Philp and Matthew Wedman.  First and foremost, he works hard at both ends of the ice.  He's strong on the boards and in the past couple of games has shown a knack for being around the front of the net when pucks are there.  His game still has a lot of developing left but he's on the right track.  Along with another rookie, defenseman Jake Lee, Hammer leads the team with a +3 rating.

The good news for Hamaliuk is that, while this is his 17 year old season, he is a late birthday and thus not eligible for the NHL draft until the spring of 2019.  This means he still has two seasons to impress the scouts, instead of one.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarrett Tyszka.  The Montreal Canadiens prospect
 had four assists in three games and is currently riding a five game point streak.  He has taken on a bigger role this season on the Seattle power play and that is one reason it is currently top five in the WHL.

2nd Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  Four goals in the three games and now has eight on the season to lead the team.  In fact, as of Thursday his eight goals tied him with three other players for second most in the WHL.  The native of Finland looks very comfortable out there at the start of his second season in North America.

First Star:  C/W Noah Philp.  Snake bitten in the first few games of the season with his new team, he's come on lately and picked up five points (2g, 3a).  Listed as a center by trade, he is playing wing on the second line with Wedman the pivot.  He, Weds and Hamaliuk have created some very good, early season chemistry. Facing defeat, his shootout goal against Vancouver Tuesday pushed the T-birds fortunes around.  Had he missed, Seattle would have lost.  By scoring, he gave Andrusiak, and Hughes, a chance to win it.



Sunday, October 1, 2017

One and One Equals Two

In their first multiple game weekend of the season the Thunderbirds earned a split, winning at home Friday and falling on the road Saturday, thus earning two points and leaving the month of September with a 2-1-0-0 record.

There were equal parts good and not so good elements in both games.  Friday, in their 5-1 win over Prince George at the accesso ShoWare Center, the T-birds had a solid start and 25 minute into the game had built a four goal lead.  As so often happens in a game you dominate on the scoreboard early, players start getting away from the structure of their game plan and start looking for individual reward. This got Seattle into trouble with turnovers and penalties.  It almost allowed the Cougars back into the game.  Seattle survived and earned a 5-1 win.  Hopefully a lesson learned by the young team going forward.  A similar scenario against a stronger team might result in a different outcome.

Saturday down in Portland the Thunderbirds compete level kept them in the game well into the third period before a few negative elements of their game caught up with them.  A postive?  Surprisingly, while deploying an entirely new top unit from a year ago, the T-birds power play has been solid in the early going and provided them with both goals against the Winterhawks. 

One negative?  Puck management, especially on breakouts.  Seattle just turned the puck over too often in all three zones on the ice.  Part of that was due to Portland's aggressive nature.  They employ a very good forecheck and use speed and quickness to create an in-your-face style to get Seattle off pucks.  This is all the more reason then for the T-birds to pay attention to the small details that go into puck management.

The effort was there from Seattle but effort does not always equal execution.  There was a need for the T-birds to make better passes and a better job of carrying the puck out of the defensive zone.  It's not the amount of shots on goal by Portland that will be worrisome to the coaching staff, it will be the amount of extra puck possession time given to the Winterhawks by the lack of consistent puck management by Seattle.

These are some of the growing pains this team will go through with their young forward group.  Its a need to be more consistent from shift to shift.  It's no surprise that Seattle's first and second lines, their older lines, were more consistent with the puck in both games. The bottom six forwards, the young first and second year players, are getting their on the job training. The goal?  To be better tomorrow then they were today, to be better at the end of the season then they are at the beginning.

One young forward whose game I liked this weekend was Dillon Hamaliuk.  Hammer actually caught my eye at the start of last season too when, as a 16 year old, he played in 17 regular season games and recorded his first WHL goal before being sent down when all the older players like Ryan Gropp, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar returned.  He did come back up and play in two postseason games, including the Chynoweth Cup clinching Game Six in Regina.

Listed at 6'3" and 182 lbs, the Leduc, Alberta native may still be filling out his frame but he is already a physical presence.  He's a strong battler along the boards and seems well on his way to becoming a prototypical WHL power forward.  In fact, Seattle has a number of young players who seem to fit that same physical mode.  The T-birds currently have nine rookies on the roster, either 16 or 17 years old, who average 6'2" and 189 lbs. and they are still growing.  They offer lots of promise.  Of course size means nothing without the skill and that is the task before these players, to develop their game to best utilize that size.

I have no problem with the third period Turner Ottenbreit hit on Joachim Blichfeld being called a penalty. Bang-bang play and in real time you have to give the official the right to make that call as he sees it.  I don't believe it was a check to the head though.  Interference was probably the more proper call as it looks like the puck is past both players at the point of contact.  But after seeing the replay from two different camera shots, Ottenbreit never leaves his skates, tucks his right arm into his body and delivers a shoulder to shoulder check.

The pass up ice put Blichfeld in a vulnerable position.  He's reaching for the puck with his head down.  Ottenbreit's job is to separate the player from the puck and prevent him from entering the defensive zone cleanly.  It's a timing play and Otto's timing may have been off by a mere fraction of a second. Is it a dirty play?  No.  Is it an intent to injure play?  No.  It's a hockey play.  To not make the hit would be asking Ottenbreit to give Blichfeld a potential breakaway opportunity.  Does Ottenbreit play the game on the edge?  Yes, but so do most of those who play this game.  The WHL, and hockey in general for that matter, would like to get those high hits out of the game.  Player safety should be paramount but its a contact sport and the hit delivered by Otto is taught throughout the game.

What isn't up for debate is the response by Portland's Alex Overhardt.  In the heat of the moment he races up ice to deliver a two-handed baseball bat-like swinging slash to the back of Ottenbreit's knees.  This is not a hockey play.  This is a play with one purpose, intent to injure.  Suspend Ottenbreit because you deem him a repeat offender?  Fine, but Overhardt deserves a suspension as well.  A crime of passion is still a crime. Do I think Overhardt is a dirty player?  No, he got caught up in the heat of the moment and tried to deliver frontier justice.  But the league needs to come down hard on his actions otherwise, they are condoning it. You can't complain about the Ottenbreit hit then look past Overhardt's actions.  That would be the height of hypocrisy.

My T-birds three stars for September:

Third Star:  Goalie Matt Berlin.  Carl Stankowski injured?  Call the Wall.  All Berlin does with Stankowski on the sideline is win games or earn Seattle points in the standings.  He's now 9-2-2-0 in his T-birds career which isn't yet one year old.  That includes 2-0 and 64 saves on 68 shots to begin the new season.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Sipoo, Finland native is off to a strong start in his second season, scoring four goals in three games, including a hat trick in Friday's win over PG.  What sometimes gets lost in his offensive numbers is his ability to play a complete 200-foot game and be a strong penalty killer. He's a definite candidate to represent Finland this winter at the World Junior Championships.

First Star:  Defenseman Austin Strand. Through three games he's Seattle's top scorer, averaging two points per game with six points (2g, 4a) and a +3 rating.  At least early on he's filling the void on the power play created by the departure of Ethan Bear.  His second power play goal Saturday in Portland was WHL Plays of the Week worthy.




Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rise Into the Night

Any way you slice it, this opening night was one for the ages.  Not four months but forty years in the making.  If you were going to put on a show for the old fans, the new fans, the hockey aficionados and the hockey novices, the old owners and the soon-to-be-new-owners, this was it.

It had a little bit of everything starting with a red carpet arrival on a gloriously sunny early fall day.  Their was the obligatory video montage recap of the run to the Championship along with the traditional introduction of the entire roster and coaching staff.  This all helped to get the sold out building fired up, as if any firing up was needed for the 6,000+ who were ready to burst.  But there was so much more before that final horn sounded on the first of 72 games this season.

There was the return of recently "retired" assistant coach Tyler Alos to carry the Chynoweth Cup onto the ice.  A terrific choice.  Alos, a former player as well, who had been with the team through some of the franchise's darker days, who then helped oversee their climb to glory.  A perfect bridge from past to present.  What a sight to see him walk through the darkness of the Zamboni gate through fog and laser lights and onto the ice with the Cup.

Then came,what most fans, especially the long suffering fans, had waited for.  The raising of not one, but two banners for a second straight home opener.  First, the franchise's third Western Conference Championship banner, the second in as many years.  A little appetizer before the main course.  Like the other two, a banner made up of a white background with T-birds-blue print to proudly proclaim their 2016-17 conference victory.

It was followed in sheer contrast by the franchise's first ever WHL Championship banner.  The dark blue background, with white lettering, setting it apart, as it should be, from the other banners in the accesso ShoWare Center rafters.  With a spotlight shining on it front and back, it slowly rose up into the night. And as it inched higher and higher the voices of the raucous, sellout crowd rose with it.  On the big screen the in-house camera panned the players standing at center ice and you could almost see the adrenalin pumping into their veins.

That might have been enough for most, but there was still the game to be played.  A night like this deserved a Hollywood ending.  It would have been hard to write a better conclusion to this night then to have it punctuated in the way Seattle won so many games a season ago, on their journey to the top of the WHL mountain; a comeback win.

It was Star Wars-esque in the way it played out and, at least on this night, the Tri-City Americans were more then willing to play the part of the Evil Empire to Seattle's rogue band of rebels.  The heavily armed Americans, ranked 7th in the CHL Top Ten preseason poll, delivered the first blow on a 5-on-3 power play. It was much like the Death Star destruction of Alderaan with thousands of voices silenced.  The T-birds, undeterred, gamely fought back to take a lead with a pair of markers midway through the first, thanks to a couple Tie Figher Pilots, Andruskiak and Moilanen, veterans of the Clone Wars, also known as the WHL Playoffs.  Late in the first period though, Tri-City would pierce the bow of the Millennium Falcon and tie it back up.

In the second period, just when it looked like Seattle was ready to reclaim the lead the shot instead hit the deflector shields.  No only did the Dark Side fend off the attack but they caught the T-birds with a flesh wound, scoring shorthanded.  The Americans were back up, 3-2.  Now it was the Rebel Alliance's turn and Han Solo, in the guise of Elijah Brown, slipped through the forest of Endor and answered back for Seattle to tie the game at three as the two sides headed into the Mos Eisley spaceport cantina for a rest up ahead of the final battle of Good versus Evil.

The third period began.  As the Death Star rounded the planet, ready to destroy the rebel base, a young Jedi named Jake Lee summoned the Force, most assuredly from his missing mentor Turner Ottenbreit, and with computer systems off, unleashed a perfect strike into an exhaust porthole only two meters wide.  It was like shooting womp rats back home in his T-16.

In the end the Empire was licking their wounds. We know they were beaten but not defeated and will come back for another battle of two. But the rebels too, showed they will not disappear into a galaxy far, far away.









Friday, September 22, 2017

Whirlwind Offseason Complete

Has there ever been a four month period in Seattle Thunderbirds history like the one the franchise has just experienced?   It started last May with the team winning their first ever WHL Championship and concluded this week, on the eve of a brand new season no less, with the team announcing the franchise has been sold, pending approval by the City of Kent and the WHL Board of Governors.

In between, the team saw head coach Steve Konowalchuk exit in June, taking a position as an assistant coach with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.  In July assistant coach Matt O'Dette was named as Konowalchuk's replacement.  At the same time it was announced that assistant coach Tyler Alos was leaving the organization to pursue an opportunity outside hockey.

That prompted the hiring of two new assistants, Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer to join O'Dette on the Seattle bench.  There was the usual offseason activity such as the trade of Anthony Bishop to Victoria for Blake Bargar and the signing of the team's top three picks from the spring Bantam Draft.  Then came the injury to Carl Stankowski at camp with Canada's U-18 team that will keep the T-birds goalie on the shelf until November.  Just before training camp head scout Dan McLean accepted a job with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins and Mark Romas was chosen as his successor.

Even the building the T-birds play in got an updated name, now known as the accesso ShoWare Center.  There were a couple more minor trades that brought Noah Philp and Liam Hughes to the organization.   Last week it was announced the Thunderbirds would be honored down in Olympia by Governor Jay Inslee for their 2017 Chynoweth Cup win and Thursday Turner Ottenbreit was announced as this season's team captain.

But the T-birds saved the biggest news for last.  A little over 24 hours from raising their Championship banner, they announced the tentative sale of the team to Dan Leckelt and Lindsey Leckelt, Co-CEO’s of Silent-Aire, a company, which according to the team's website engineers and manufactures custom HVAC solutions for data centers, institutions and industrial facilities with over 50 schools alone in Washington State utilizing Silent-Aire equipment. Silent-Aire also engineers and manufactures equipment for the world’s largest hyper scale data center companies.  The company has bases in Seattle, Edmonton, Phoenix, Virginia and Ireland.

The prospective owners aren't hockey neophytes either.  Both played minor and pro hockey and are owners of the Stony Plain Eagles Senior AAA hockey team as well as the Spruce Grove Jr. A Saints.

If approved, it will mark the first ownership change in club history in nearly two decades.  In the early 2000's Russ Farwell, Colin Campbell and their group purchased the club from Bill Yuill.  They then built it into a profitable, championship caliber, Major Junior franchise in the WHL's biggest market.  That's not an easy task considering the other options in the region vying for the sporting public's dollar.  They worked with the City of Kent to cultivate a partnership after moving into the ShowWare Center in 2009.   They essentially turned over a good chunk of their fanbase from their KeyArena days.   They've embraced their new community and region and the community has embraced them back.

If the sale is approved, both Farwell and Campbell will stay on in their roles as General Manager and Assistant General Manager and continue to help oversee what they have built.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Net Gain

With presumptive starter Carl Stankowski on the shelf with injury until late October/early November, Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell swung a deal for goaltender Liam Hughes.  Farwell sent a 2019 fourth round Bantam pick to the Edmonton Oil Kings in exchange for the 18 year old netminder.

Hughes, a native of Kelowna, B.C. played in seven games last season for Edmonton, posting a record of 1-4-2-0 with a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .895.  He went 0-1 in two preseason games this September. 

Hughes was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 Bantam draft.  Hughes will most likely compete with Matt Berlin for ice time until Stankowski is healthy enough to return.  I would surmise T-birds brass wants to see young 16 year old Cole Schwebius get more seasoning, as well as more ice time, possibly with a Junior A team, although it is possible Seattle could start the season with three goalies on the roster and keep Schwebius for a week or two.

The addition of Hughes now gives Seattle four signed goaltenders in their system.  As short as three weeks ago the T-birds only had two and one, Stankowski, was injured.  Schwebius, a 2016 10th round Bantam selection signed just before the start of the preseason.  While his preseason numbers aren't stellar, he competed well and looks like he will be part of the future in goal.

By dealing for the 18 year old Hughes, Seattle didn't have to pay too steep a price, surrendering just the 2019 fourth round pick.  While there are a few free agent 20 year old goalies, such as Cody Porter and Mario Petit, looking for roster spots in the WHL, acquiring one would have cost Seattle one of their current 20 year olds in either Donovan Neuls, Tyler Adams, Turner Ottenbreit or Austin Strand. That would have been a steep price to pay for essentially two months of service.   As it is the T-birds will have to trim or trade one of those from their roster at or before the 20 year old cutdown date.  I'm sure they didn't want to have to depart with two of that group.

Meanwhile Hughes, at age 18 still has three years of WHL eligibility left.

  

Friday, August 25, 2017

Starting Over

Now that the rookie prospects portion of training camp is complete, it is time to turn the attention onto main camp and the job of building the 2017-18 Thunderbirds roster.  The biggest task?  Finding a way to replace over 350 points now gone from last season's championship club.

Seattle has a strength to build around.  They return five of their top six defenseman from the team that captured the Chynoweth Cup.  Of course, that one defenseman not returning won't be so easy to replace.  Ethan Bear is the reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, was an integral part of the T-birds very successful power play and was one of the top scoring defenseman in the league each of the past two seasons.  Those will be big skates to fill.

Still, the team returns a good mix of veterans and young and up and comers in their blue line crew.  They are led by a pair of 20 year olds in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand along with 19 year old Aaron Hyman.  Returning for his third season with the club is 18 year Montreal Canadians draft pick Jarret Tyszka while fellow 18 year old Reese Harsch enters his second year with the team after a solid rookie campaign.  

To fill the spot vacated by Bear the T-birds will use a combination of 2016 first round bantam pick Jake Lee and 17 year old Tyson Terretta.  While those two are officially entering their rookie seasons, both actually made their WHL debuts last year.  In fact Lee not only made his regular season debut with the team last season but also played in two playoff games as a 15 year old, twice taking the ice in the Western Conference Final versus Kelowna.

With the five players returning and the two rookies, Seattle essentially ices a group of defenseman with the same average age of the group that led them to the WHL title last spring.

Goaltending should be in good hands with 17 year old Carl Stankowski, who played every minute of Seattle's WHL playoff run, and 19 year old Matt Berlin. The unknown is the situation with an injury Stankowski suffered this summer while training with Canada's U-18 team.

The biggest question mark for the T-birds will be the forward group.  Look, no team is going to replace the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Scott Easnor, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True in one offseason.  Those are five players expected to play this coming season in either the NHL or AHL.  Those five were a once-in-a-generation group that, along with Bear, led this team to their first ever WHL championship.  Still, it took two to three seasons to develop their chemistry and reality says it will take a few seasons to develop the next generation of T-bird forwards.

They should have a solid top line centered by 20 year old Donovan Neuls, flanked on the wings by fourth year player Nolan Volcan and 18 year old Finnish import Sami Moilanen.  What the T-birds need to do is cobble together a second, third and fourth line from a group of youngster led by 18 year old center Matthew Wedman and 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown.

First year head coach Matt O'Dette and his new look coaching staff of Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, will be looking for returning players such as Zack Andrusiak, Luke Ormsby and Ian Briscoe, along with newly acquired Blake Bargar, to take the next step in their development while infusing the lineup with a number of rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk,Tyler Carpendale, Holden Katzalay, Russian import Nakita Malukhin and 16 year old Cody Savey.  The good news?  All but Malukhin and Katzalay have had a taste of the WHL.

I would also expect the team to keep a couple more untested 16-year old forwards, depending on which ones sign.  Two potential candidates are 2016 draftees Eric Fawkes and Nakodan Greyeyes.  I also wouldn't be surprised to see the team make a September trade for an 18 or 19 year old forward with WHL experience.  I'm not saying it will happen, because it all depends on cost in terms of draft capital and prospects, but should such a player become available I would expect General Manager Russ Farwell to at least kick the tires.

The team also has a decision to make on winger Tyler Adams who played a prominent role the second half of last season after being acquired from Swift Current in December.  Adams is one of four 20 year olds in camp fighting for three roster spots.  If Adams is retained, one of Neuls, Ottenbreit or Strand would have to be traded or released.  It may come down to which three of that foursome have the most value to this year's team as opposed to which of the four garners the most return in a trade.  This is a decision that probably won't be decided until the mid-October 20 year old cut down date.

One more thought as we embark on main camp and, next weekend, the preseason.  This will be my 17th season broadcasting Thunderbirds hockey.  Over that span I've seen firsthand the cyclical nature of the WHL.  Players come and players go as they push through in hopes of developing into pros.  Heck, the 20 year old players on the roster my first season with the club back in 2001, are now in their mid-30s.  When I began, my son was a one year old.  He's now entering his senior year of high school.  During that span a few hundred players have worn the Thunderbirds jersey, some for as many as five seasons and some maybe for as little as five games.

It has started to hit me though, how special this last group that just passed through, truly was. That I  won't see Barzal out there on the ShoWare Center ice to fire that last puck during pregame warmups.  I won't hear Kolesar's full-of-confidence, bellowing voice chirping someone, rookie, vet, it didn't matter, from the back of the bus or that, try as I might, I've missed my chance to turn Eansor away from the Denver Broncos and into a Seahawks fan.  There won't be any smiling, laid back "how's it goin'" greeting from Gropper any more as I walk down the hallway back near the locker room in search of a player interview and no more True lurking tall over everyone as he taped his stick outside the equipment room, his game face seemingly always on.

But what really made me think about this most recent passing of the torch was the noticeable absence of the dozen or so Bear jerseys and the many Bear family members who annually seemed to descend upon the ShoWare Center for the start of training camp these past five years.  It seems like only yesterday those six players arrived on the scene and blazed a trail to a championship and now, they're gone.

Man, I miss those guys already.



Friday, August 4, 2017

Helping Hands

As we get closer to the start of training camp and a new hockey season, the Thunderbirds have completed their new look coaching staff for 2017-18.   There are just two holdovers from the staff that brought the franchise its first ever WHL Championship.  Matt O'Dette is back, albeit in a new position, being elevated from assistant coach to head coach with the departure of Steve Konowalchuk to the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. Ian Gordon remains as the team's goaltending coach.

Gone, along with Konowalchuk, is Tyler Alos.  After four seasons as a T-birds player and four more as a T-birds assistant, Alos has taken a full-time job outside of hockey, although he will keep a toe in the water, I mean on the ice, by taking a part-time coaching position with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

I do want to take a moment to thank Tyler.  Both in his playing days and his time as an assistant coach he was always available for an interview.  I particularly appreciate him coming on our post-game show the past four seasons after home games, especially after a loss.  He never made excuses or ducked tough questions.  He was well spoken, both on and off mic.  He never missed a chance to praise an unsung player for putting in hard work and doing the little things that made a difference in a game.  It was enjoyable to watch his transition from player to coach and to see his evolution as an assistant coach as he took on more responsibility each season. He did this while taking advantage of the WHL's education program, attending college classes (even if they were through WSU, go Dawgs!).  He was integral to the success this team had the last four years and he will be missed.

With O'Dette elevated to head coach and Alos leaving the organization, the T-birds spent the summer seeking two replacements. In early July Seattle hired Kyle Hagel to take over as the primary assistant coach, basically filling the role O'Dette occupied the past four seasons.  Hagel comes to the T-birds after a nine year playing career, primarily in the AHL, including one season as a teammate of O'Dette's in Fresno.

This week the T-birds completed the coaching hires with the addition of Castan Sommer, who will take over the Alos role.  LIke Hagel, Sommer joins Seattle directly from the playing ranks, having spent last season with Kallinge/Ronneby, a Division 1 team in Sweden.  The year before that he was with the ECHL's Manchester Monarchs.

While the 32 year old Hagel is new to the coaching game, Sommer, who turns 26 in late October, has some experience in that department having served as a skating coach at the San Jose Sharks Development Camp in 2016.  Both of the new assistants also played four seasons of college hockey.  Hagel, a native of Hamilton, Ontario attended Princeton while Sommer, a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts native matriculated at Holy Cross.

The Thunderbirds also made one player move this past week.  General Manager Russ Farwell sent 19 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop to the Victoria Royals in exchange for 19 year old right winger Blake Bargar.  The deal allows Bishop to play his natural position back on the blue line. In his only season with Seattle, Bishop split time between defense and forward but probably skated more as a forward. 

Playing on the wing, Bishop was getting ice time so he didn't complain and in the end, it got his name on the Chynoweth Cup.  His preference though, is to be a defenseman and I'm sure that's how the Royals plan to use him.  In Kent, it may have been difficult for him to crack the top six defensemen this coming season with five veterans returning (Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand, Jarret Tyszka, Aaron Hyman and Reese Harsch) plus at least two highly regarded rookies (Jake Lee and Tyson Terretta) needing ice time as well.

In return, Seattle gets the Californian, Bargar.  I'm just theorizing here but it is my guess that Bargar gets a role similar to what the T-birds envisioned for Tyler Adams when they acquired Adams at the trade deadline last season from Swift Current; an older forward to play on the third or fourth line and protect some of the younger players.  Of course, because of injuries, Adams seldom played that role with the Thunderbirds, often playing on the first or second line.  While Adams made the most of it, knock on wood that isn't the case again this season with Bargar in that role.  It would mean the T-birds once again are dealing with injuries to top end players.

So, less then a month before players begin reporting for training camp, the T-birds new look coaching staff is in place.  Despite the 90-plus degree temperatures of early August, the ice is now back in at the Accesso ShoWare Center.  It's just about time to get down to the business of hockey.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You Bet, it's O'Dette

I don't know if it was the worst kept secret in Thunderbirds history, but I would suspect very few are surprised that Seattle General Manager Russ Farwell has tapped Matt O'Dette to succeed Steve Konowalchuk as the team's head coach.

O'Dette spent the past four seasons as the Thunderbirds primary assistant coach, Konowalchuk's right hand man.  Along with assistant coach Tyler Alos and goaltending coach Ian Gordon they formed a coaching staff that took the franchise to heights they've never experienced.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and by promoting O'Dette the T-Birds franchise will have as much coaching continuity as is possible, after you lose the main man, as they transition off their championship season.

O'Dette has head coaching experience on his resume, having served as a head coach in the ECHL prior to joining Konowalchuk's staff.  He won't be overwhelmed by the increased responsibilities. But the reality is, it is his experience as a T-Birds assistant coach that put him above the pack in the coaching search.  It was his time working with the players he inherits on this team, and the familiarity he has with the younger players coming into the fold this next season, and the next few season's beyond this one, that made him such an attractive candidate to follow Konowalchuk as the main man behind the bench.

One of O'Dette's main roles the past four seasons has been to handle the defensive corps.  Since his arrival in the South Sound, the T-Birds have been one of the top penalty killing teams in the WHL as well and that too was an area he handled in the Konowalchuk regime.

He was a defenseman in his playing days in the OHL, AHL and ECHL.  In 1994 he was drafted into the NHL by the Florida Panthers.  During his time with the T-Birds he's helped mold two WHL Defenseman of the Year Award winners in Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear.  Since arriving in Kent, he helped those two, and now Jarret Tyszka get drafted into the NHL, while another, Turner Ottenbreit, has attended three NHL development camps.

There is a tendency to read into that then, that O'Dette would then be a "defensive-minded" coach.  But remember, all three of those NHL drafted players mentioned are 200-foot players. Theodore and Bear are the two highest scoring defensemen in franchise history and were among the top scoring defensemen in the league throughout their WHL careers.

I would not expect there to be too much change in the way the Thunderbirds play under O'Dette, compared to how they played with Konowalchuk at the helm. O'Dette played a significant role in shaping the T-Birds style of play the past four years and he learned a good deal working with Kono.  The key will be finding  a couple of assistants to add to O'Dette's staff who fit the T-Birds style.

O'Dette begins his head coaching tenure with the T-Birds in a similar fashion to how Konowalchuk began his, with a roster in transition.  Like Konowalchuk, O'Dette will have some solid WHL veterans to work with but will get the opportunity to develop a roster over the next two seasons that will feature a lot of fresh faces.  Gone is the core group of Barzal, Eansor, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear that led this team the last four seasons.  O'Dette will get to build a new core group to carry this club.  The one major difference for O'Dette is those veterans and even some of those younger players he inherits, know what it takes to earn the title "Champions".

Another bit of history was made with the O'Dette hire.  He becomes the first head coach in franchise history to have a Twitter account.  Don't expect a lot of tweets though.  Even before being named head coach, his tweets were few and far between.  No surprise that his tweets are all team or hockey related.  His last one?  Congrats to ! Absolute steal of a pick by the .   That was after Tyszka was drafted by the Canadiens back in June.








Thursday, June 29, 2017

Who's Next?

For the second time in less then a decade, the Seattle Thunderbirds franchise is at a crossroads.  The team is in search of a head coach to lead them going forward. The situation today is both eerily similar and vastly different then it was in the spring of 2011.

In the spring of 2011, the T-bird had just finished up their second consecutive non-playoff season.  As a result General Manager Russ Farwell parted company with head coach Rob Sumner after seven years behind the bench.  They were an older team that year but lacked more then a few top end players.  The team knew that they would still have some veterans back the next season but would be transitioning over the course of the next couple of years and becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

And now, here we are today in another transition period, after the man who replaced Sumner, Steve Konowalchuk leaves for a job in the NHL.  Instead of coming off back-to-back non playoff years though, the T-birds are coming off consecutive appearances in the league's championship series, including winning it all this spring.  But like 2011, while the team still has some quality veterans returning for next season, over the next couple of years they will be transitioning, becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

In the spring of 2011 they captured lightning in a bottle and found the perfect marriage between coach and roster when they chose Konowalchuk to lead them from the bottom of the WHL standings to the top.  Each season under his leadership they got better and as we noted above, it culminated in the franchise's first ever Chynoweth Cup.

The question becomes, can they capture lightning a second time because this next hire is just as important as the last.  The core group of players who helped lead the franchise to its greatest successes is now gone.  Younger players are standing by ready to take their place.  The S.S. Thunderbird needs a captain to get them all rowing in unison and in the right direction.

Over the course of his coaching tenure with the T-birds it seemed that the organization brought in players who fit what Konowalchuk wanted for his roster. While that may have some truth to it, let's give the players credit for adapting to his coaching style and the coach credit for adapting his systems to the talent he had on his roster.  He convinced his players they could succeed with his style.  That's the trick isn't it?  To find that perfect balance between player talent and coaching acumen.  Konowalchuk was able to find that balance.

My memory is a bit sketchy but what I seem to recall from the Konowalchuk hire back in the spring of 2011 is that he wasn't necessarily aggressively seeking the job.  That instead Farwell identified him as someone who would fit well as a head coach at the WHL level and he convinced him to take the position.  Farwell, to use a word you here a lot in politics when political parties are seeking out candidates, "vetted" Kono.

I like that word, "vetted".  It means to investigate someone thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job.  I'm guessing Farwell has already received dozens and dozens of inquiries into the T-birds coaching vacancy. Once again, he must do some vetting of those candidates.  Once again he has to find the perfect match between roster and coach.  Once again he has to find that one candidate out their who has that "it" factor that separates the also-rans, the run-of-the-mill coach, the average coach from the great one who can lead a roster of young men to be their best.  He doesn't have to find a Konowalchuk clone, just someone with the same Konowalchuk qualities.

The time frame to make the hire is much smaller then it was in 2011.  Konowalchuk's decision to move on came well into the offseason.  Most teams, at all levels, have completed their hires for next season. T-birds training camp is just two months away. So yes, there is a sense of urgency but Farwell has been around the block a few times.  He knows he can't rush to make this hire just for the sake of hiring someone.  Getting it right is more important than getting it done.

For the second time in less then a decade the T-birds franchise is at a crossroads.  Which path will they choose as they move forward?



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kono is Gono

You know the old expression, "Time flies when you're having fun?"  Well the last six seasons of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey have seemingly flown by in an instant.  They've been six fun years.  I had a front row seat watching this team come out of a couple of seasons of a non-playoff funk and build towards a championship caliber team.  Winning hockey is fun hockey and it's a lot more fun to be around a winning atmosphere.

Steve Konowalchuk made it that way. Oh, it wasn't all fun and games with Kono at the helm.  He demanded a lot from his players.  He ran tough, grueling practices.  At times he was matter-of-fact brutally honest with his players and that included high NHL draft picks.  But he did it without throwing any one player under the bus.  In the locker room, on the bench or on the team bus was as far as it went.  Never in a radio interview, never in the newspaper or on any blog on the internet.

He stressed that to be a champion you had to practice like a champion, you had to train like a champion.  It wasn't just about the sixty minutes on game nights.  It was also about what you did leading up to game nights to prepare yourself.  He constantly emphasized to his team you can't take shortcuts.  That was something he never did as a player, and never did during his T-birds coaching tenure.

He took losses hard but instead of letting a defeat eat away at him, he used it as motivation, as fuel to make himself a better coach and make his players a better team.  He passed that along to his players. That's a big reason why, in his final season behind the T-birds bench, his team captured the franchise's first ever WHL Championship.   Individually he may not have had the deepest, or most talented roster, but he had the best team.  He got players to buy into their roles.

Not a lot of coaches get to leave on their own terms.  What's the adage?   Coaches are hired to be fired.  But Konowalchuk leaves the T-birds as a champion, heading back to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks after six seasons in Kent.  He leaves with a resume filled with more accomplishments then any previous coach in Thunderbirds history.  If you ask those who've been around the team the past six years for one word to describe him I think 10 out of 10 would say "competitor".   He has a drive to succeed at whatever he does.  He has set the bar high for who ever takes over.

But there is nothing left for him to prove at this level, he's reached the mountain top of the WHL.  By next October, seven banners will hang from the ShoWare Center rafters.  It took well over 30 years to earn the first three.  Konowalchuk brought the next four into the building in just six years.  He helped create a winning culture.

It seems it was just yesterday that I was interviewing Kono up in the Heritage Bank Lounge at the ShoWare Center after he had been announced as the T-birds new head coach shortly after the 2010-11 season had ended.  A lot of ice has melted since then, and there were hundreds of off mic chats and on the record interviews along with countless bus rides and team meals along the way.  Yep, time flies when you're having fun.

A Real True-per

The annual CHL Import Draft took place Wednesday morning and as expected, Seattle used one of their two allotted picks. The T-birds, selecting 56th overall in the first round of the two round draft, chose Russian winger Nikita Malukhin.  Malukhin is a 2000-born player, listed at 6'2" and 202 lbs., going into his 17 year old season. With Sami Moilanen in the fold, the T-birds passed on their second pick.

Statistical information on Malukhin is limited.  He apparently played for Kazan Irbis in the Russian Junior League last season, tallying six points (2g, 4a) and was a +4 in just 28 games played.  It would appear Kazan is the name of the town and Irbis is a trucking company that sponsored the team.  Kazan is located approximately 11 hours east of Moscow on the Volga river. 

According to Google,  "Kazan is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a population of 1.2 million, it is the eighth most populous city in Russia. Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in European Russia.".  So, now you know.

Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell indicated in comments made after the draft that Malukhan will report to the T-birds saying "He is excited to be coming to the WHL".  Farwell described Malukhan as a skilled forward with good size and that he has real potential to be an exciting forward in the WHL.

To get a better sense of the kind of player the T-birds latest Import selection is, you can watch this video clip of him scoring a goal:  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x59ibgk.  But to get a better idea, we'll have to wait for training camp in late August.

What does this mean for the big picture?  Well, as we've suspected ever since the T-birds season ended at the Memorial Cup in Windsor back in late May, Alexander True will not be returning for his 20 year old season with Seattle.  In fact Farwell told mynorthwest.com blogger, and my partner on the radio broadcasts, Tim Pigulski, that True's agent informed him that he was close to signing a pro contract.  So, instead, the T-birds two imports will be the 17 year old Malukhan and 18 year old Moilanen, who will return for his second season. 

It makes since. The T-birds are going into a reload/rebuild process and will be much younger next season.  Drafting Malukhan gives them a player they can add to the rebuild, someone who could potentially be with the organization for three seasons much like True was after they selected him in the 2014 Import Draft out of Denmark.  

Malukhan will be added into the mix of 2000 and 2001 born players who will make up the bulk of the roster for the next three years. And there will be plenty of "bulk" among those 2000-born forwards with Malukhan, 6'3" 202 lb. center Tyler Carpendale and 6'1", 201 lb. left wing Dillon Hamaliuk.  Remember, those are their current heights and weights.  I'm sure all three have yet to finish growing.  Heck, that trio of 17 year olds just might be your third line.

So we can now officially say goodbye to True.  It's still possible he could play another year for the T-birds.  Think back to the Roberts Lipsbergs situation a couple of seasons ago when he was brought back from the pro ranks as a 20 year old to replace the injured Justin Hickman for the second half of the 2014-15 season.  But for that to happen the T-birds would have to suffer a significant injury to one of their 20s plus jettison one of either Malukhan or Moilanen.  That's what you call the worst-case-scenario.

We've mentioned on this blog recently the Fab Five who led the T-birds the past four years (Barzal, Bear, Eansor, Gropp and Kolesar).  True was also a big part of that core group, though he only played three seasons in Kent.  He deserves similar recognition as those five for bringing the T-birds their first ever WHL Championship.

In his three seasons with the T-birds True registered 84 points (45g, 39a) in 169 regular season games.  He was at his best though in the playoffs.  In 44 postseason games he produced 34 points (20g, 14a).  In 11 Championship Series games, going back to the Final last spring against Brandon, True scored eight goals and none were bigger then his game winning overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series versus Regina.  It is the biggest goal in franchise history, earning Seattle their first Chynoweth Cup.  Additionally, three times while a Thunderbird True also represented Denmark at the World Junior Championships.

I'd still like to see True get a crack at an NHL training camp.  Maybe he will this fall.  He's attending the San Jose Sharks Development Camp the first week of July.  He's certainly more then capable of playing professionally in Europe but I think he has the frame and skill for a pro career here in North America.  He's a solid face-off guy and strong on the penalty kill.

The big Dane gave the T-birds three tremendous seasons and his last goal as a T-bird gave Seattle fans a first ever championship.  The image of him standing and watching his game winner hit the back of the net while Regina players are sprawled down on the ice all around him, will be etched in our memories forever.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tyszka Takes the Fifth

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jarret Tyszka becomes the latest member of the organization to hear his name called at the NHL Entry Draft.  The Langley, B.C. native went in the fifth round, 149th overall, to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in Chicago.

Tyszka, of course, will attend the Canadiens development/rookie camp this summer then will be off to main camp in September.  After that, it is back to Kent for his third season and a bigger role with the Thunderbirds.

Tyszka's selection continues a recent trend.  Seattle has had a defenseman chosen by an NHL team every other year over the past five years. In 2013 it was Shea Theodore going in Round One to Anaheim. Two years later, 2015, it was Ethan Bear being selected in the fifth round by Edmonton and now here in 2017 Tyszka is picked by the Canadiens. 

So, with that in mind, now that Las Vegas has a team in the NHL, I might go down to catch a game and while there, put a few dollars down on, oh, maybe Jake Lee to be selected in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 

Speaking of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights have a bit of a Thunderbirds flavor to their roster.  Former T-bird goalie Calvin Pickard was selected in the expansion draft off the Colorado Avalanche roster, the aforementioned Theodore was picked up by the Knights in a trade with the Ducks and on Day Two of the NHL draft, Las Vegas traded a second round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Keegan Kolesar.

Along with Tyszka, 216 other players were chosen in this weekend's NHL Draft.  That seems like a lot but in reality it's not, when you consider their are now 31 NHL teams.  Among those eligible to be drafted more probably didn't hear their name called then did with each team having, on average, just seven selections

Among those not chosen was draft eligible T-birds Finnish winger Sami Moilanen.  I saw a number of mock drafts that projected him as a sixth round pick but in the end, he was passed over. His size probably worked against him.  I would not be surprised though to hear he gets invited to some team's rookie camp this summer.   Moilanen was a bit of an unkown coming into this season, his first in North America, but with an extended playoff run with Seattle he should have gotten enough scouts' eyes on him that one team will give him an invite.  NHL teams are always looking for that diamond in the rough.

I saw a stat that says only 12 percent of players drafted in rounds 3 through 7 ever have a meaningful NHL career, which for the sake of their study was considered to be 200-plus games.  Even being a first round pick is no guarantee of success at the NHL level.  In some draft year's less then 50-percent of first round picks have made a career at the NHL level.

Seattle's Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson was among the members of the T-birds staff who were in Chicago this weekend for the NHL Draft.  No doubt he was there to talk with players and/or their agents ahead of next week's CHL Import Draft.  The Import draft is slated for Wednesday at 8 a.m. Seattle time.  The T-birds have the 56th pick in Round One. 

Both of Seattle's current Import players are eligible to return for next season but the prevailing thought is that Alexander True, who would occupy both a 20 year old roster spot and an Import roster spot, is ready to move on to the pro ranks.  If Seattle makes a selection with that 56th pick Wednesday, that would certainly mean True will not be returning to Kent.

There is also no indication that Moilanen won't return for another season with the T-birds, so I wouldn't anticipate Seattle using their second round pick Tuesday which is 116th overall.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The X(s and Os) Factor

Before I put the Thunderbirds 2016-17 championship season behind and look to the future, one final commentary on how this team got to the peak of the WHL mountain. 

To do that I do need to look at the T-birds just completed less then stellar showing in the Memorial Cup.  Well, not so much a look at how they fared in Windsor, but who they were up against.  First, let me acknowledge that I just didn't see a lot of the fire in the T-birds in their three Memorial Cup losses that I saw from this team all season, and especially in the 2017 WHL playoffs.  The team was physically present at the WFCU Centre, but mentally, I think they were absent.

But you also have to acknowledge that in Windsor, Seattle faced three teams with better, deeper rosters and that is getting to the heart of what I'm about to write; that the Thunderbirds won the 2017 WHL Championship because their coaching staff, specifically head coach Steve Konowalchuk, got the most out of what he had to work with.  It's a whole lot easier working with a team full of the most talented players.  They can cover up for a lack of top end skill further down the roster.  It takes some strong coaching to mold together a team of hard workers and grinders into championship material. 

Let's look at the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Windsor Spitfires.  Despite not advancing out of the first round of the OHL playoffs (beaten in a seven game series by the defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion London Knights), the Spitfires brought to the Memorial Cup a roster that featured ten NHL drafted players, including three first rounders and another in Gabriel Vilardi, who could go top five in the upcoming NHL draft and a goaltender in Michael DiPietro who could be the first goalie taken in the 2017 NHL draft.  Their rosters also included three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those ten NHL draft picks on the Spitfires roster, six of them were acquired at some point via trade.  In other words, the host team loaded up for this Memorial Cup run.

After a 68 game regular season, Windsor played just seven playoff games and had a six week layoff to get healthy and rested for the Memorial Cup.  One of the reasons given for the Spitfires fifth place finish in their conference and early playoff exit was injuries.  Apparently Windsor couldn't play through them.  Seattle played a 72 game regular season plus 20 playoff games, had top players out of the lineup for long stretches and had less then a week between winning the WHL and their first game in Windsor.  

Now, let's take a look at the runner up at the Memorial Cup, the OHL Champion Erie Otters.  The roster the Otters brought to Windsor only featured eight NHL drafted players, and only one, Dylan Strome (the Memorial Cup MVP), was a first round pick, albeit third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes.  Erie did have three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those eight NHL draft picks, two were acquired via trade. 

Finally, the team that eliminated Seattle from the Memorial Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs, topped them all with 10 NHL drafted players and one NHL signed free agent on their roster and like Windsor, three of them were first round picks.  Four of them were 4th rounders.  Also like Windsor, nearly half of those NHL drafted players were brought in via trade as the Sea Dogs loaded up for their championship run. 

Now, let's take a look at the Thunderbirds roster.  Seattle featured just four players drafted into the NHL, all taken in the same 2015 draft.  Every one of them drafted and developed by Seattle.  Not one picked up in a trade.  They include a first round pick in Mat Barzal, a 2nd round selection in Ryan Gropp, a 3rd rounder in Keegan Kolesar and 5th round pick Ethan Bear.  They had a few players in Scott Eansor, Turner Ottenbreit and Aaron Hyman who have been invited to one or two NHL rookie/development camps, but none are signed.  They have a couple of players in Jarret Tyszka and Sami Moilanen who could have their names called in this next NHL draft but most likely not in the top half of the draft. 

When it came to strengthening this team for the run to the Chynoweth Cup, and the subsequent trip to the Memorial Cup, T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell certainly didn't "load up" in the manner of his cohorts in Windsor, Erie and Saint John.  Seattle didn't acquire any NHL first rounders prior to the trade deadline.  In fact Farwell didn't add one NHL drafted player to his roster in either of the past two seasons as Seattle twice made a trip to the Chynoweth Cup Final. 

What did Seattle do to make themselves better at this year's trade deadline?  They sent a third round Bantam Draft pick to Calgary for Hyman and swapped out Brandon Schuldhaus for Austin Strand in a deal with Red Deer.  Before that it was picking up Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  That's it.  Nothing along the lines of a blockbuster deal.  No bringing in a Julius Nattinen or a Graham Knott as Windsor did, no acquiring a Warren Foegele or Anthony Cirelli as Erie did and unlike Saint John, no trading for a Julien Gauthier.

Okay, so that's the Memorial Cup opposition.  What about in the WHL?  Well again Seattle's moves to get them the Ed Chynoweth Cup certainly weren't on the scale of Prince George which added a second round NHL pick in Brendan Guhle, a 5th round NHL selection in Radovan Bondra and a potential first rounder in Nikita Popugaev.  They didn't trade for a 40+ goal scorer in Reid Gardiner or a 3rd round NHL pick in Carsen Twarynski like Kelowna did.  And their roster couldn't match the seven NHL drafted players that Regina featured including a third rounder, Josh Mahura, acquired at the trade deadline. 

Unlike Portland did a few years back, there was no bringing in big guns like a Matt Dumba or a Seth Jones to strengthen the team for a championship run.   No trading away first round picks for a chance to win it all like Saskatoon.

Instead Farwell gave Konowalchuk and his staff role players.  Smaller pieces to finish the puzzle. It was up to Konowalchuk to make them champions. And he had to do it while some of those NHL drafted players missed games due to illness and injury.  He had to work them into a championship team while they combined to miss 309 games.  He had to do it while not having a full roster for nearly two dozen games.  He did it without either of the team's two 2013 first round bantam picks on the roster.   He did it by mixing and matching and using 4th liners on the 3rd line, 3rd line players on the 2nd line and sometimes 3rd liners on the 1st line. 

No one player epitomized what Konowalchuk and his staff could do with a player more then Reese Harsch.  The same Harsch who, in his only appearance as a 16 year old a season ago looked like he didn't belong at the WHL level, then was molded into a top six defenseman on a WHL Championship team a year later.    The T-birds didn't "load up" to win their first ever championship, they were "coached up".  It wasn't about who they were as individual players but about what they were together as a team.  No weak links.

And that chain of 25 players, that looked like it could break so many times during the course of the season and the playoffs, was held together by a coach and a coaching staff that wouldn't allow them to be pulled apart. 

You know what question it seems I got asked more then any other this postseason and during the Memorial Cup?  There were plenty about Carl Stankowski and his amazing postseason run.  Quite a few times I was asked about that "got-to-see-him-to-believe-him" player Scott Eansor.  But the question I seemed to get asked the most?  How is it Steve Konowalchuk isn't the WHL Coach of the Year? 

I don't have an answer to that question.  And Konowalchuk probably doesn't care he was overlooked.  Afterall, he may not have a voted-upon award but he does have a well earned championship. 




Sunday, May 28, 2017

Detours to a Championship

I was asked an interesting question the other day.  Which player on this roster was I most happy to see win a WHL Championship?  Heck, I'm happy for all of them.  Every player put in the hard work to get the chance to lift the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Everyone of them, at some point this season, did something to help win a regular season game or a playoff series. 

There are a couple of obvious answers such as every player on this year's roster who was on last season's club and felt the sting of the loss in the 2016 Championship Series to Brandon.  You never know if you'll get another chance and for many of them, another chance would be their last chance at the Cup.   So, I'm happy for those players who got a second opportunity and reached the goal they fell just short of last season.

Scott Eansor would be another obvious answer.  For every highly ranked bantam pick that leads their team to glory, there are hundreds more like Eansor.  His junior hockey story is a tale many players endure, more the norm then the exception.  Overlooked in the Bantam Draft, overlooked because of his size and overlooked because he didn't play much as a 16 year old following hip surgery.  He was a player given a chance and he made the most of it.   He earned a roster spot with Seattle, he claimed a spot with Team USA at last year's World Juniors in Helsinki, winning a bronze medal and so far, has earned two NHL camp invites.  Back when I was growing up in the '70s, they would have turned his story into an Afternoon Special on TV. 

But then I got to thinking about four players who took a number of detours to arrive with the Thunderbirds, some unwanted or unneeded by other teams until fate stepped in and sent them our way. They all became integral parts of Seattle's road to the title, not necessarily driving the bus but certainly they all had a hand in keeping the wheels turning. 

First and foremost is Tyler Adams.  Late this past preseason, Seattle had acquired 19 year old Layne Bensmiller from Prince Albert in the Nic Holowko trade.  But just seven games into his Thunderbirds career Bensmiller came up lame and eventually had to shut it down.  Two months into the season and all of a sudden Seattle was missing an older depth player for their third or fourth line.

T-birds management felt that lack of a veteran player on that fourth line was holding them back, especially with Mat Barzal and Alexander True about to leave the team for World Juniors and Keegan Kolesar just returning after a six week layoff following surgery.

Meanwhile out in Saskatchewan, the Swift Current Broncos were under the direction of a new coach, Manny Viveiros.  Viveiros wanted to give more ice time to some of his younger players.  That meant less ice was available for the 19 year old Adams, who despite being an older player on the Broncos roster, was only in his second WHL season.  It's not a new phenomenon when a new coach comes in.  Sometimes returning role players just don't fit the new coach's system or the coach and player don't see eye to eye on how best the players should be used.   After a solid rookie season, Adams was on the outs in Speedy Creek. 

So, on December 14th, with two games left before the Christmas break,  T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell, looking for some seasoned depth,  sent little used 17 year old forward Mackenzie Wight to Swift Current in exchange for Adams, who just wanted a chance to play.  It ended up being one of those deals between player and team that becomes a perfect fit.  In his first game as a T-bird, Adams quickly ingratiated himself with his new teammates and the ShoWare Center crowd, dropping the gloves with Prince George's Kody McDonald.  The next night he was all over the ice, delivering big hits and winning battles along the boards and being named the game's third star as Seattle blanked Tri-City, 3-0. 

Because of all the second half injuries to Seattle's forward lines, Adams rarely played on the T-birds fourth line, which was the intention when they acquired him.  But even without those injuries, his hard work earned him a more permanent spot on the third line, though at times he saw action on both the second and first lines as well.  He topped it off by getting to hoist the Chynoweth Cup in his home town of Regina, in a building he had been to many times as a kid watching his hometown Pats. 

If you ask him he'll probably tell you coming to Seattle was meant to be.  As we waited for the team bus outside the WFCU Centre after Seattle's loss to Saint John that ended their Memorial Cup in Windsor he thanked me for all the good things I had said about him during the broadcasts.  He said he found his hockey home with the T-birds and you could see on his face how genuinely grateful he was for the opportunity.  He went from being in hockey limbo in Swift Current to being a WHL Champion with Seattle. 

For that to happen, so many things had to fall in place.  Nic Holowko, wanting more ice time in Seattle had to ask for a trade.  He did.  Seattle had to accommodate that request which they did, sending him to Prince Albert for Bensmiller.  Then Bensmiller had to suffer an injury, one that he couldn't heal from, ending his season, which happened.  If any of that never happens Adams most likely never becomes a T-bird.  Pretty nice that the hockey gods aligned perfectly for Adams.

From Regina, to Swift Current to Seattle to lifting the Cup in Regina because of a trade request, an injury and a coach who didn't need him.

Before Farwell made the move for Adams, he made another under-the-radar trade in October with the Spokane Chiefs.  Seattle knew they would be losing young, rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski for two weeks in early November to the U-17 Hockey Challenge.  Outside of Stankowski and Rylan Toth, the T-birds had no signed goalies in their system, having just dealt Ryan Gilchrist to Lethbridge.  In need of a goalie to back up Toth for a few weeks Farwell sent a conditional 9th round draft pick to Spokane for 18 year old Matt Berlin. 

Berlin, who had played in one game early in the season for the Chiefs and in six games for them the previous season, was at the time playing Junior A in Alberta for Sherwood Park.  The plan was to have him join the team while Stankowski was away then return to Alberta with the promise he'd get a chance to make the T-bird roster fulltime the next season. 

And initially that's what happened. Berlin got one start on the T-birds six game road trip through Saskatchewan in early November, debuting with a 5-1 win in Moose Jaw.  When the team returned to Kent, Berlin headed back to Sherwood Park. But an injury Stankowski sustained at the U-17 Challenge wasn't healing.  A few weeks later, Berlin was back with the Thunderbirds for good.  He would get into 13 games, post a 7-2-2-0 record, 2.82 GAA and a SVPCT of .902.  With Toth hurt at the end of the regular season, Berlin became the primary back up to Stankowski during Seattle's 20 game playoff run.  When Alexander True scored the game winning, cup clinching, overtime goal in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, Berlin shot off the T-birds bench so fast you would have thought he was on the ice at the time of the game winner. 

From Spokane, to Sherwood Park, to Kent to a WHL Champion all because of an injury suffered at an international tournament by a 16 year old rookie. 

Not too long after the Berlin acquisition, Farwell was forced to make another deal, again with Prince Albert, when the New York Rangers returned 20 year old Ryan Gropp to the T-birds from their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.  It was an unexpected move, since Gropp was a signed prospect.  His return gave them one too many 20 year olds and someone would have to be traded or released. 

Meanwhile at some point this past offseason Zack Andrusiak had requested his release from the Tri-City Americans organization.  The 18 year old Andrusiak had been an Americans prospect but never suited up in a regular season game for them. Before the season began the Yorkton, SK native hooked up with Prince Albert and made it onto the Raiders regular season roster, playing in eight games and scoring his first WHL goal. 

When Seattle determined that Cavin Leth was the odd man out in the 20 year old situation they sent him to PA for a 2018 3rd round Bantam pick and also got Andrusiak thrown into the deal.  So, once again Andrusiak was on the move, coming back to the U.S. Division.  In 52 regular season games for the T-birds "Andy"  would contribute nine points (5g, 4a) then add one big playoff goal in a win in Game 2 of Seattle's second round sweep of Everett. 

From Yorkton to Kennewick to Prince Albert to Seattle and a WHL Championship all because the New York Rangers decided to send one of their top prospects back for one final season in the WHL. If Gropp sticks with Harford, Andrusiak is still a Raider. 

Before any of the above deals were consummated, there was another move made just after training camp and during the preseason.  With Landon Bow having moved on from the team after last season, the number one goaltending job with the T-birds heading into training camp this year was thought to belong to 19 year old Logan Flodell.  After two season's backing up Bow and, before him, Taran Kozun, Flodell was the next in line to be the team's number one netminder.  But in Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk's system, nothing is just handed to any player.  You have to earn it through competition.

Maybe not being named the team's starter before camp began weighing on Flodell, but for whatever reason he did not have a good camp with Seattle and then in two preseason starts, allowed eight goals.  The T-birds brain trust, knowing they had a team that could compete again for a league title, knew goaltending was crucial to that effort.  With their uncertainty about Flodell they made the decision to acquire 20 year old Rylan Toth from Red Deer, a playoff veteran who also had Memorial Cup experience. 

With an up and coming Carl Stankowski in the fold, there was no need for a 19 year old back up so Seattle dealt Flodell to Saskatoon. To his credit, Flodell had a solid season with the Blades. In return the T-birds received 18 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop.  Again, primarily because of injuries Bishop would split time with Seattle between playing wing and defense.  In 66 games he registered seven points (2g, 7a), then suited up for 11 of the 20 playoff games.

All because T-birds brass wasn't convinced Flodell could carry the load in goal Anthony Bishop went from the roster of a non-playoff team to having his name engraved on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Four players and four different, unexpected paths traveled to become part of a championship team.

Of course the opposite is true for some of those players who missed out on the chance to be a WHL Champion this season.  The players who were dealt away in those deals.  If I'm disappointed for any of those players it would be Cavin Leth.  In his short time with Seattle he was instrumental in helping them get to the WHL Championship Series against Brandon a year ago.  Like Adams, he seemed a perfect fit for a Steve Konowalchuk coached team.  It was nothing he did or didn't do that forced Seattle to ship him out.  He did play three games with Seattle this season before the trade that sent him to Prince Albert, so I feel a small part of that win in Regina should be shared with him. 

In the end, that's just part of the game.  You never know where a detour will take you. For these four players, it took them to the pinnacle of success, a WHL title.





Saturday, May 27, 2017

Good-bye to the Fab Five


According to those who chart such things, the planet earth has been around for about 3.5 billion years. So a four year span is but a mere speck, on a speck of dust, on our planet's long time line. Yet for Thunderbirds fans these last four years have been some of the best and most important in franchise history and the last two have been historic.

Four banners and one Chynoweth Cup earned, the first in franchise history and while it takes an entire team of 25 players to climb to the top of the WHL mountain, five players were front and center, leading the way.  Their names will live on in T-birds lore, etched now on that trophy for eternity.  Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, Bear, Eansor. After playing together for four years, their work here is done.  They move on but not before leaving us with four years of terrific hockey moments and memories that will last us, and them, a lifetime.

Front and center is Mat Barzal.  It seems like only yesterday he was an unsigned 15 year old prospect, relegated to the role of spectator at the ShoWare Center in the spring of 2013.  Like many of us, he watched from the stands as Evan Wardley and the underdog T-birds scored an overtime playoff goal versus Kelowna.  Fast forward to the spring of 2017 and he's hoisting an Ed Chynoweth Cup on the ice of the Brandt Centre in Regina.  In between, 278 points in just 202 regular season games and then another 65 points in 49 playoff games capped by a WHL Championship Series MVP.  With the weight of a franchise on his back, along with his teammates, he carried the team to the top. 

He set records, he represented his country and when he was on the ice your eyes gravitated to him.  He matured into possibly the best player in the 40 year history of the T-birds franchise.  You can debate the Glen Goodall's and Patrick Marleau's but Barzal brought one thing to this franchise those two never did, a league title.  Maybe he had better talent around him but he still delivered the ultimate prize.  I would argue too, that he did it with higher expectations placed on him as a number one overall bantam pick, by a franchise that was at a crossroads after losing out on a playoff spot for three straight seasons. 

It says something about a player, when despite his team winning a playoff series without him as the T-birds did in sweeping Tri-City in Round 1, the biggest question is "When is Barzal coming back?"  We all knew he was the linchpin. 

Ryan Gropp came with some hype of his own.  He was the 8th overall pick in the first round of the 2011 Bantam Draft.  A pure goal scorer.  Seattle had to wait as he juggled whether to go the college route or to major junior, but in the end, the wait was worth it. 

I remember his first game with the T-birds at the Toyota Center in Kennewick just a few nights after signing with the team.  His first shift, his first shot, a first goal and a sign of things to come.  The image of him flashing down the left wing, speeding past a defender and beating a goalie with his pinpoint shot is how most of us will remember him as a T-bird.  And I'll never forget his shot late in Game 6 on a Sunday night in Regina that sparked a comeback that led to overtime, that led to a win that brought this team a championship.  The last of his 132 goals as a T-bird. 

When he was sent back to Seattle this season by the New York Rangers he didn't ask "Why me?"  He said, "Let's get going."  And now, in a flash, his time in Kent is done too. 

Barzal and Gropp were both first round bantam picks.  We sometimes forget the same is true of Keegan Kolesar. Maybe that gets lost when you consider he was the second of Seattle's two first round picks in a deep 2012 draft.  He was chosen 19th overall, 18 selections after Barzal went first. Kolesar was the prize for trading Marcel Noebels to Portland that winter.  He never lacked for confidence and had a flair for the dramatic.  A last second goal in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Championship to tie it and send it to overtime where Seattle would capture just their second conference title. 

It was an omen of things to come as just over a year later he scored another late goal to force overtime in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series.  A game that Seattle would, once again, win in overtime and he had a big assist on the game winner.  A big goal and a big assist from a big player, in a big moment.  With baseball and football in his family tree, thank goodness he found hockey and the T-birds found him.  And along with Barzal and Gropp, he has taken off his Thunderbird jersey for the last time. 

From that same draft that produced Barzal and Kolesar came defenseman Ethan Bear.  A second round pick, 25th overall.  When he was drafted, his hometown was sometimes listed as Whitewood, Saskatchewan.  Of course we all know now that he's from Ochapowace.  We'll never forget that he came from Ochapowace.

Twice in the last four seasons the T-birds stopped off at the Ochapowace reservation and the residents there welcomed the team with open arms.  You see, not only did the T-birds draft Ethan on that day in May back in 2012, they drafted the whole Bear clan.  Of all the things we are going to miss about Bear, his booming slapshot in particular, I think the traveling Ethan Bear Fan Club will be missed the most.  It just won't be the same without 20 to 30 #25 Bear jerseys in the stands the next time Seattle visits the prairies. 

The irony about Bear is that, at age 15, he missed a good portion of his first Thunderbirds training camp with an injured shoulder.  He comes full circle by ending his time as a T-bird with a busted hand. Only this time there was no way a couple of broken digits were going to keep him off the ice.  What a gutsy way to end his time in Kent.  That broken hand didn't stop him from hoisting the Cup though.  And now, like Barzal, Gropp and Kolesar, he too hangs up that #25 sweater, puts the Thunderbirds behind and embarks on the next chapter in his hockey life. 

Last, but certainly not least, there is Scott Eansor.  Well traveled as a youngster with family stops in Michigan, the east coast and Colorado, Eansor missed his 16 year old season because of surgery on both hips.  Undrafted his bantam year, Seattle took a flyer on him.  They listed him and invited him to camp at age 17.  He wasn't sure what to expect here and the team wasn't sure what to expect from him.  In the end, it was a perfect match.

Early on he played with too much emotion.  He probably still does.  You need those guys though, guys who play the game with their heart on their sleeve. But when he learned to rein it in he became one of the most important cogs on the team.

We often talk about how Barzal makes the players around him better.  I think the same can be said of Eansor. In his second season with the team he was put on a line with two older players in Sam McKechnie and Jamien Yakubowski and they became a tremendous shut down line, putting the clamps on the best forwards on the opposition.  In his third season he was paired with younger teammates Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls and history repeated itself.  This season, Sami Moilanen was put on that line with Eansor and Volcan and the results were the same.  In all three instances Eansor was the common denominator.

Eansor was at his best in the playoffs, twice leading the team in postseason goals scored.  His 21 career playoff goals are now a team record.  He went from an unknown commodity to a team captain on a championship club.  And now he's the answer to a trivia question.  Who was the first player wearing a Seattle jersey to ever raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup?  Scott Eansor. 

And now he follows his teammates Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear out the door and onto the next stage.  Five players together for four years.  Together they brought us a division championship, two conference titles and the first league championship in Thunderbirds history.  Well done and a standing "O" to the Fab Five. 










Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Best T-birds Loss Ever



Don't let the headline fool you.  I'm not going to write about the Thunderbirds disappointing results from the Memorial Cup.   While the coaches and players will never make excuses, it's my personal belief that this team was emotionally and mentally spent after beating Regina in the WHL Championship series.

It was another learning experience for this franchise, getting to the Memorial Cup Tournament for the first time in franchise history as WHL champions. Less then 48 hours after returning from Regina, the T-birds were on a plane to Windsor.  The tournament came up on them so quickly after that Cup clinching, Game 6 road game against the Pats, they were never able to re-focus and flip that switch back to "on". 

Add to that Seattle was probably the underdog in the tournament. A quick peek of the rosters of the other three teams shows that all had an average of ten NHL drafted and/or signed players.  The T-birds had four. 

No, the loss I'm going to write about happened on the final weekend of the 2011-12 regular season, in their final home game that season and it was the best loss this franchise ever suffered.  It's a case of winning by losing because without that loss the T-birds would not be where they are today, 2017 WHL Champions.

Going into the final weekend that season, Seattle was battling Everett for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.  The prize for either team would be a first round playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top seed, the 50 win Tri-City Americans.   The loser would be out of the playoffs and fall into the draft lottery. 

Both Seattle and Everett entered that final weekend with 52 points.  The T-birds actually had four more wins then did the Silvertips (25-21) going into that game, but because of eight shootout losses, Everett had the same number of points as the Thunderbirds. 

The T-birds final weekend consisted of that Saturday night home game against Everett, on St. Patrick's Day no less, followed by a Sunday afternoon road game down in Portland.  For Everett, the Saturday game in Kent was the 72nd and last one on their regular season schedule.  It would be their last chance to control their own destiny.  Meanwhile, all Seattle needed on the weekend was to win the March 17th showdown with the Silvertips at the ShoWare Center and they would claim the last spot into the postseason. 

Now, they could still lose at home to Everett and force a play-in game for the final spot if they won versus the Winterhawks the next day, but the chances of that happening were slim and none.  Up to that point that season Seattle was a mere 1-10 against Portland including eight straight losses by a combined score of 57-14.  So the battle for the last playoff spot would come down to that home game against the 'Tips. 

The T-birds opened the scoring with a Conner Honey goal with just over 90 seconds left in the first period.  Seattle took that lead into the intermission, but early in period two Everett tied the game on a goal from Manraj Hayer.  The game stayed tied until Branden Troock potted his 14th of the season at the 7:16 mark of the period.  Hayer's second of the night evened the score at 2-2 at 15:46.  A minute later with Burke Gallimore in the penalty box, Seattle's Luke Lockhart was awarded a penalty shot and converted to put the T-birds back on top, 3-2. 

The wild second period continued when the 'Tips Josh Birkholz tied the game at 3-3 on the power play at 18:04.  But with 28 seconds left in period two, Seattle regained the advantage when Honey potted his second of the night with Seattle on the man advantage.  The second period ended with Seattle on top, 4-3.  The T-birds were 20 minute away from a playoff spot after missing the postseason the year before by a mere three points.  A one goal lead with a full house in the building to spur them on.  Twenty minutes away from a date with Tri-City in Round One. 

The third period started well enough for Seattle.  They held their one-goal lead through most of the first half of the period, but at 8:31 Everett found the equalizer off the stick of Zach McPhee.  Just over 11 minutes left and it was tied at 4-4.  Anyone's game.  Then, with just under five minutes remaining, the Silvertips took the lead.  Cody Fowlie scored his 14th of the season and it was now 5-4 'Tips. 

With time running down and looking for a tying goal, first year head coach Steve Konowalchuk pulled goalie Calvin Pickard for the extra attacker. But with 19 seconds left Everett's Ryan Harrision scored into the empty net.  Final score:  Everett 6 Seattle 4.  The next day Seattle would fall, 8-2 down in Portland and be officially eliminated from postseason play, but it was that loss to Everett that really doomed them.  It put the Silvertips up two points in the standings, despite having three fewer wins then the T-birds.   Everett's reward for that win was a four game sweep at the hands of the Americans. 

Think about that, Seattle had a 4-3 lead on home ice with 11:29 left in the game.  They were that close to a "W" and a postseason berth.  Thank goodness they couldn't hold onto that lead!  What you say?  You wanted them to lose?  Well, not at the time I didn't.  You are always pulling for your team to win.  And Seattle played that night to win.  But that loss changed the course of the franchise.

How so?  Well, by losing that game (and the next day in Portland) Seattle missed the playoffs.  By missing the postseason Seattle finished with the third worst record in the WHL and they were relegated to the draft lottery.  By finishing with the third worst record, when Seattle won the draft lottery that April, they moved up two spots from the third overall pick in the first round to the first overall pick.  With the first overall pick, the T-birds selected Mat Barzal. 

Had Seattle won that mid-March night in 2012, instead of picking first that draft they would have been picking 7th.  Prince George used the 7th overall pick that year, one they acquired from Everett, to select Brad Morrison. Morrison has had a solid WHL career with the Cougars, even selected in the 4th round of the 2015 NHL draft by the new York Rangers.  But he's no Mat Barzal.  Interestingly, Everett had traded that pick to PG in exchange for the rights to Jujar Kharia.  That swap occurred on draft day though.  Had Everett lost to Seattle in that March 17th game, it might have been the 'Tips who won the draft lottery and thus the right to draft Barzal.  I doubt they are moving that pick to PG.  Did one game between two rivals change both club's fortunes? 

If the T-birds win that March 17th, 2012 game against Everett they don't get Barzal and with no Barzal I doubt Seattle is hanging a 2016 U.S. Division Champions banner.  I doubt they are putting up  2016 and 2017 Western Conference Champions banners and they are probably not  hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup as 2017 WHL Champions and there's no trip to Windsor to play in the Memorial Cup.  It takes a team of 25 players to win a championship but make no mistake, Barzal was the catalyst.  He ends his Seattle career as one of, if not the best player in franchise history.  He came to the team with a lot of hype and he lived up to it.   When he was drafted, fans saw him as a savior who could take them to the promised land.  Others in similar situations have crumbled under the weight of those expectations.  He thrived under it.

One game, one loss that changed the course of the franchise.  The best loss ever! 



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This Magic Moment


They say a picture is worth a thousand words but this one might leave you speechless.  This, of course, is the moment Alexander True scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, earning Seattle their first ever Ed Chynoweth Cup.  A moment in time captured on video that will live forever in Thunderbirds lore.  It's only appropriate the photo was taken from his back side, because this team had each others backs all season long. And in the end, the T-birds were the last team standing in the WHL!

I'll have more to write about later, but for now it's on to the Memorial Cup in Windsor. Enjoy! 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Best of Five Now

After splitting the first two games of the WHL Championship Series in Regina, the action for the Thunderbirds and Pats now shifts to the ShoWare Center for Games 3,4 and 5.  The series is now a best-of-five with the first three schedule on Seattle's ice. 

So far in the 2017 postseason, the T-birds are 6-1 on home ice with the lone loss occurring in Game 2 of the Western Conference Championship Series, a 4-3 overtime loss to Kelowna.  Seattle has outscored their opponents, 31-20 in those seven home playoff games.

Regina is 5-3 on the road in postseason play so far this spring and they have scored 34 road playoff goals in those eight games. Two of those eight road playoffs games have gone to overtime including a three OT affair in Round 2 versus Swift Current.

In the first two games of this series, Seattle has allowed five goals against.  Three of those have been scored by the Pats on the power play. Regina is 3-for-11 with the man advantage.  The two even strength goals were both scored unassisted, after the T-birds committed two cringe worthy turnovers against little pressure, in their own end.  Suffice it to say, Seattle has to be more disciplined going forward in this series and they must do a better job of puck management in the defensive zone. 

Goaltending in the first two games was outstanding.  Neither team should have any complaints about how their 'tenders have played in a pair of games that went overtime.  Carl Stankowski for Seattle and Tyler Brown of Regina have each given their team a chance to win both nights. 

It was terrific, entertaining hockey in the first two games up at the Brandt Center.  Lots of physical play, end-to-end action with edge-of-your-seat moments throughout. I would expect that to continue now that the series has come south of the border.

We all know that Ethan Bear has been playing with an injury to his hand.  It's a heavy burden to play at less then 100 percent at such a crucial time of the season and still try to deliver your best.  But as we've seen in the first two games of this series, Bear has handled that burden well. 

There is another weight Bear carries and it has nothing to do with his injury. It is a weight on his shoulders that he, pardon the pun, gladly bears.   Bear hails from the Ochapowace Cree Reservation two hours outside of Regina.  The youngsters there look up to him as a role model. He's not just a good hockey player and NHL prospect of the Edmonton Oilers, he's also an outstanding citizen and example of what hard work and goal setting can accomplish.  But it's not just the youth in Ochapowace that look up to him.   Other First Nations children from around Western Canada also look at him too.

Seattle stayed four nights at a hotel in downtown Regina.  Also staying at that same hotel was a pee wee team from a Reservation in Alberta, just outside of Edmonton.  Every time I hit the lobby, or even the elevator, wearing my polo shirt with the T-birds logo emblazoned on it, these young players and their family members I encountered would ask me, "Is this the team with Ethan Bear?"  or, "Do you know Ethan?"  And when I would say yes they looked at me, their eyes big and wide in amazement, like I had touched a rock star. 

When we returned to the hotel after Game 1 Friday night, Bear was mobbed by these young kids as he stepped off the bus and entered the lobby. He patiently took the time to greet them all.  Then, before Game 2, as Seattle arrived at the Brandt Center, waiting outside the bus at the players entrance was another small group of older, teenaged First Nations youth.  While his teammates filed off the bus and into the arena, Bear stepped aside and took a few moments to pose for a photo. 

I don't know what it is like to be a minority.  And I only know how to be a role model for my own two kids.  Ethan Bear has to be a role model for hundreds if not thousands.  And he has to do it at the ripe old age of 19!  When I see how he handles it I'm amazed at his maturity.  You can see in his face, with each of these encounters, that he recognizes what he represents to these kids and their parents.  He knows each time he meets these youngsters, he's going to have an impact on them and he's sure to make it a positive one.  He does all this while trying to help the Thunderbirds win a championship.  He does all this while trying to improve himself, to become a better hockey player. He does all this while still striving to reach his own goal of playing in the NHL.

He should be proud of the way he carries himself, but he's probably too humble for that.  His parents should be proud of the way they raised him. He is who he is because of them.  His Ochapowace community should be proud of the way he represents them.  He takes them with him wherever he goes. 

Game 3 Tuesday night.  Gonna be a lot of fun!