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 named engraved on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Four players for 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 a 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! 




Monday, May 1, 2017

Back-to-Back!

Feeling the Blue!
Photo courtesy of Marissa Baecker

Seattle Thunderbirds, 2017 Western Conference Champions.  Has a nice ring to it doesn't it?  Twice as nice as Seattle Thunderbirds, 2016 Western Conference Champions, right?

After watching the Brandon Wheat Kings celebrate a WHL title on the ShoWare Center ice last May, on a Friday the 13th no less, the Seattle Thunderbirds had one goal in mind this season, get back to the WHL Final. Get one more crack at the Chynoweth Cup with this core group. 

It wasn't easy.  Over the past seven months T-birds players have missed nearly 300 man games due to injury, illness, the NHL or international tournaments.  Injuries were the biggest adversary, taking some of Seattle's best players out of the lineup for extended periods of time.  But 12 months and 92 games later (six preseason, 72 regular season and 14 playoff games versus the Western Conference) this club has persevered, overcome all those obstacles and here they are back in the WHL Final after disposing of the Kelowna Rockets Sunday evening up at Prospera Place. 

As Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said prior to Game 6, this was a series of depth players as both teams dealt with key injuries.  In the end Seattle's depth shined just a little brighter. 

A season ago in the league championship series, they faced the Wheat Kings, who were the CHL's 2015-16 number one ranked team preseason. This time around?  They get the current CHL top ranked club, the Regina Pats.  Seattle's response?  You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.  Bring 'em on. 

This recent six game series with Kelowna should serve as a great preparation for the Final.  Despite going one game short of a full best-of-seven, this match up with the Rockets was a battle.  Kelowna, a team with seven current NHL prospects and probably 4 or 5 future NHL draft picks, was physical, they were at times relentless.  At times in the series the Rockets came at Seattle in waves, a team of highly skilled, well coached, smart hockey players.  Kelowna used their speed to challenge Seattle.  They made the T-birds play at their best to win this series.

By the time Game 6 rolled around, that is exactly what Seattle did.  They played their best game of the series in the final game.  That was textbook Steve Konowalchuk T-birds hockey.  The Thunderbirds were unrelenting on the forecheck, they tipped the puck possession game back in their favor and forced Kelowna to play a 200 foot game all night.  Win or lose, ever since Konowalchuk arrived on the scene in 2011 that's how this team has played.  They are a direct reflection of their coach.

Goaltenders rarely steal an entire series for their team.  A game or two yes, but not a series.  But stealing a game can help you win a series.  In a playoff series with two evenly matched teams like this one between the T-birds and Rockets, Carl Stankowski did that for Seattle in Game 3 up in Kelowna.  The T-birds were outplayed that night but Stankowski came up with 34 saves, beaten only by a controversial goal that looked to be knocked in with a high stick.  He gave the T-birds a chance to win that game despite being back on their heels for most of sixty minutes and they did with a very late Keegan Kolesar goal.   If Kelowna gets that win, I'm not sure Seattle is going to the WHL Final for a second straight year.

To pick up the Western Conference Championship trophy or not?  Teams usually leave the conference championship trophy alone because that's not the ultimate piece of hardware they're after.  A year ago Seattle captain Jerret Smith honored that longtime tradition of not touching it, barely looking at it.  Seattle then lost to Brandon in five games in the league final. 

This time around, the T-birds not only touched it, picked it up and raised it over their heads, they took selfies with it.  This team is different.  They've overcome adversity. Just when you think another, bigger obstacle has been laid in their path, they dig deeper and overcome it.   They bucked the trend of going deep in the postseason despite all the pitfalls they encountered.  Superstitions be damned.  They earned that trophy so they celebrated the moment. 

Last season's team was a close knit group. Because of all the things they've gone through the past seven months, this year's team is even closer.  In Game 5 versus Kelowna, they played inspired hockey for their injured teammate Ethan Bear, and won 5-3.  In Game 6, they picked up Keegan Kolesar after he was sent off late in the first period with a five minute major and game misconduct.  When you are the next man up, when you play for the guy to the right of you and the guy to the left of you, there are no weak links. 

Final power play chances from this series:  Rockets 42 T-birds 24.  Final power play goal totals:  Rockets 10 T-birds 8.  Seattle's penalty killers were terrific.  Another big reason why Seattle is moving on.  The turning point in Game 6 certainly had to be the T-birds, already down a goal, killing off that five minute major.  Kelowna didn't get even one shot on goal.  Momentum shifter.  Not long after killing that off Seattle tied the game, then scored twice more to take the lead for good.

When you play an important series such as this and a rookie defenseman logs a lot of ice but you don't notice him too much because he's going about his business the right way, that's a good thing.  Well done Reese Harsch.  In the absence of Bear, Harsch logged some big minutes on the penalty kill against that potent Rockets power play.  His slashing penalty late in the series clinching win may have actually saved a goal. 

Kelowna rolled just four defense most of this series, primarily due to injury so I'm sure fatigue played a factor, but those are four really good d-men featuring a current NHL first rounder in Lucas Johansen, a future first rounder in Cal Foote and a 5th round NHL pick in Devonte Stephens.  Time and again though I saw Seattle's Sami Moilanen win puck battles from them deep in the Rockets end.  Some NHL team is going to get the steal of the draft should they pick Sami this June. 

The last time Seattle and Regina played was six months and 76 games ago, October 30th at the Brandt Centre.  It was the second game on the T-birds six-game eastern road trip.  Seattle lost that night, 6-3, but that final score is misleading.  The game was tied, 3-3, midway through the third period when Regina scored on an Adam Brooks power play goal to take the lead, then added two late empty netters.  It was a special teams game that night.  The T-birds went 3-for-5 on the PP, the Pats 2-for-5.   The shots were even, 29-29.  The T-birds played that game with no Mat Barzal, who was still up in the NHL with the New York Islanders, and no Keegan Kolesar, still out with an injury suffered at NHL training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Also missing was  19 year old Layne Bensmiller, out with an injury that would eventually cost him the rest of the season. 

Seattle's back end looked considerably different as well.  GM Russ Farwell had not yet made the trades that brought in Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman. 

Six rookies dressed and five played in that game for the T-birds, including 17 year old Mackenzie Wight, who is no longer with the club, having been traded to Swift Current for Tyler Adams a month later. It was one of the few games in the early going where Wight wasn't a healthy scratch but he went into the lineup that night in place of another 17 year old rookie, Ian Briscoe.

The Seattle lineup also featured two defensemen in Bryan Allbee and Brandon Schuldhaus, who are no longer with the team and rookie Dillon Hamaliuk, who after six more games would be re-assigned to the AAA Midget Leduc Oil Kings.  The other rookies were defenseman Anthony Bishop and forwards  Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak along with back up goalie Matt Berlin. A lot has changed, for both teams, in the ensuing six months. 

My T-birds three stars for the Western Conference Championship:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls finished the series with five points (1g, 4a) and a +4 rating.  With the T-birds shorthanded 42 times in the series, he was one of their best penalty killers.  With Kolesar out most of Game 6 he stepped up to the top line as well as the top power play unit and earned a huge assist on the game winning goal.  Averaging well over a point per game in the postseason (1.29) on six goals, including two game winners, and 12 assists with a +8.  With all those penalties assessed to Seattle versus Kelowna, he stayed out of the box and so far hasn't picked up one penalty minute in the postseason.

2nd Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Barzal had a point in every game of the series versus Kelowna and is currently riding a 10-game point streak.  He hadn't scored a goal in the first five games against the Rockets but his goal in Game 6 was huge, giving Seattle a two goal cushion.  Like a season ago against Kelowna in the playoffs, he got better as the series moved along and was the best skater on the ice in Games 5 and 6.  After missing the first round of the postseason against Tri-City now has 17 points (5g, 12a) in 10 playoff games, averaging almost two points per game (1.70). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  It takes a herculean effort to upstage Barzal but even Mat would probably agree Stanky was the series MVP.  He stole Game 3 in Kelowna with 34 saves.  While facing only 18 shots in Game 6, many of his stops were of the highlight reel variety.  While he gave up 17 goals in the six games, remember that in just four regular season games versus the Rockets, the T-birds other goalies surrendered 20 goals.  this was a Rockets team that led the Western Conference with 283 goals during the regular season and was scoring in bunches in the playoffs (38 in their first 11 postseason games).  When Seattle needed a big save, he delivered time and time again.