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.  There 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 or 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.