And that, as they say, is a wrap. The book has closed on another season of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey. This time, far too soon of course. The last two go-rounds, the T-birds stretched their season deep into May. This time they could only make it to the last day of March. Such is the nature of the beast. The organization built up a championship roster over the course of four years and now they are in a reloading cycle.
How ironic is that Seattle's best period of hockey in the playoff series versus Everett might have been the turning point, only not in their favor. After a road split to open up the best-of-seven the T-birds came home with home ice advantage in their back pocket. They roared out of the gate in Game 3 and blitzed the Silvertips with 24 shots and an early power play goal. They spent most of that period in the Everett end of the ice. Yet when the period was over, despite how dominating they were, the game is tied 1-1. Psychologically I think Seattle never recovered. They should have had the lead going into the intermission. they put Everett on their heels, yet it was not enough. Seattle never got close to winning again.
Many pundits and prognosticators didn't believe in this team when the puck dropped on the season back in late September. They didn't think they had the horses left after a Chynoweth Cup run to even make the postseason this spring. Many didn't think they could withstand the roster purge and a coaching staff makeover and still be competitive. They were wrong. The team competed every night. They battled in the toughest division in the league and still came out with a winning record. Every other team in the division was a buyer at some point this past season, adding veterans for a possible title run. Seattle was a seller. They added pieces for the future, not the present. They played without knowing who would be their number one goalie until January and still battled their way into the second season, as brief as it was.
How would they score after losing over 350 points from their championship roster? They returned only one player who scored more then 20 goals the previous year. That player, Sami Moilanen, potted 21 goals in 2016-17 and would be limited to just 22 goals this time around because he missed one-third of this year to injury. Yet the T-birds scored nearly as many goals this season (250) as they did last season (253). Five 20 goal scorers emerged from the shadows and a majority of them should be back next year.
Among those who will not return is Austin Strand. The 20 year old defenseman surprised many with his 25 goal performance this season. His junior eligibility complete, he now heads to the pro ranks with a WHL championship ring on his finger. His year and a half in a Seattle jersey helped the undrafted d-man earn a free agent contract with the NHL's L.A. Kings. Strand came to Seattle in a December 2016 trade with Red Deer, one of the final pieces needed for the T-birds run to the Cup last year. In two and a half seasons with the Rebels, Strand amassed all of seven goals. In his season and a half with the T-birds he scored 33 then added five more in 25 playoff games. Hashtag, change-of-scenery.
The end of the season over the weekend also just about closes the door on one of the best bantam drafts in recent Thunderbirds history. The 2012 draft, the Mat Barzal draft, those '97 born players. Donovan Neuls was the last player on the roster from a draft class that was used as the foundation for a championship. Eight players from that group would make the roster at one point or another. Only Logan Flodell remains in the league now, playing in goal for the Lethbridge Hurricanes who advanced to Round Two out East. Four of those players are now playing professionally, two of them in the NHL.
Meanwhile, Neuls went out with a career year, tying Nolan Volcan for the team lead in scoring with 76 points (22g, 54a). Neuls though, was at his best when it mattered the most. In 49 playoff games he registered 39 points (13g 26a). None of his 13 postseason goals were bigger then his overtime winner in Game One of last year's Championship Series against Regina. When you hear the term "team player", you should think of Neuls. He played every position on the ice in his T-birds career except for goalie. And with the injuries the team suffered this season at that position, who knows how close he may have come to going between the pipes. Center, wing, and yes even defenseman, he played it. On the power play or penalty kill, tasked with shutting down an opposing team's top line, for four seasons Neuls was Seattle's Swiss Army Knife. They should have used that to etch his name on the Chynoweth Cup.
We think of Turner Ottenbreit as a member of that Seattle draft class and in a way he was. He too was drafted in the spring of 2012, albeit by the Saskatoon Blades. He was the fourth to last player chosen, some 200-plus picks after the T-birds selected Barzal with the first overall pick. Yet it is hard to imagine the T-birds winning as they did the last four seasons without number four patrolling the blue line. His acquisition early in the 2014-15 season didn't set off any alarm bells. It was no blockbuster deal. Seattle had too many 20 year olds, Saskatoon had an open roster spot so the T-birds sent overage defenseman Adam Henry to the Blades and got the young Ottenbreit back in the deal. 333 games later, Otto leaves the organization an all-time fan favorite (any player who is despised by every other division rival is a fan favorite for life) but more importantly, he leaves a champion.
As my collegue Andy Eide over at mynorthwest.com pointed out to me, had that trade never been consummated, had Ottenbreit never left the Saskatoon organization, he would have not played one minute of playoff hockey in his WHL career. Saskatoon has missed out on the postseason for five straight years. Instead he comes to Seattle, plays in 49 playoff games, wins a division banner, two conference championships, a Chynoweth Cup, plays in the Memorial Cup and is captain his final season. Not bad for a 12th round bantam pick. A textbook example to never give up on your dreams.
With the graduation of these three players and a few others who won't return next season, another layer is peeled away from that group that brought the franchise its greatest success. We say goodbye to Donny, Strander and Otto the same way we said goodbye to Keegs, Barzy, Scotty, Gropper, Truzy and Bear last year and Smitty and Haufer, among others, the year before that. They're gone but not forgotten. No longer able to watch them up close day-to-day, we will follow their careers now from afar. Once a T-bird, always a T-bird.