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.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post, Thom! So true - you never know what doors will open when it feels like one closes.

    It's so funny how guys like Leth and Adams became such team and fan favorites in such a short time with Seattle. I, for one, was crushed when we had to trade Leth.