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.