First things first. Woohooo! Seattle Thunderbirds hockey is on its way back! After getting approval from the State of Washington, the WHL announced this past week that the league's five U.S. Division teams will commence an abbreviated season March 19. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get up and running, but the teams, the league and the State have come together to make this happen and that partnership will continue to ensure a safe and healthy campaign.
Most likely it will be a 24-game season. We already know the games will be staying within the division. A schedule will be announced later but some variation of the T-Birds playing each of their division rivals six times seems the most plausible. There will be no fans allowed in any of the arenas but video and audio streaming services will be available.
Now, you may be asking why go through all the trouble for just 24 games? It certainly won't be a profitable endeavor. Simple answer? For the players. The Western Hockey League is one of the top development leagues when it comes to sending players on to the NHL. It's the league's mission to develop players for the next level. In fact, I'll take it one step further. It is their promise to the players.
A lost season is a lost year of development. Even 24 games are critical for the players but especially those who are eligible for the next NHL Draft scheduled for this summer. Seattle's roster is filled with players who fit that criteria. At least eight Thunderbirds are first time draft eligible. These 24 games could be the difference when it comes to being selected by one of the 32 NHL teams.
And there is talent to be found up and down a WHL roster. The other night former T-Bird defenseman Austin Strand became the fifth member of the T-Birds 2017 WHL Championship roster to make his NHL debut when he stepped on the ice for the Los Angeles Kings. Remember, Strand went undrafted by the NHL. By playing as much as he did in the WHL though, he constantly had the eyes of the scouts on him and he eventually signed as a free agent with the Kings.
Not only did Strand make his NHL debut that night, but so did another former WHL defenseman, one time Tri-City American Dylan Coghlan, who suited up for Vegas. In fact every U.S. Division team, except Everett, had a former player on the ice in that LA versus Vegas matchup. There was not just Strand and Coghlan, but Spokane's Jarret Anderson-Dolan played along side Strand with the Kings while former Portland Winterhawk Cody Glass scored a goal for the Golden Knights.
We haven't even mentioned former T-Bird, and current Golden Knight, Shea Theodore was also on the ice while Strand's former teammate with the T-Birds, Keegan Kolesar, was a scratch. T-Birds fans should remember the name Austin Wagner. He played against Seattle in that 2017 WHL Final as a member of the Regina Pats. He now plies his talents with LA. Kale Clague? A member of the Brandon Wheat Kings team that beat Seattle in 2016. Now a member of the LA Kings.
You want an example of just how deep the talent pool is in the WHL? Let's time travel back to those back-to-back WHL Championship Series Seattle was a part of in 2016 and 2017. Check the rosters of the three teams involved, Seattle, Brandon and Regina. Combined, 15 players have played at least one NHL game now. Seattle is represented by six names. Strand joins, Mat Barzal, Ethan Bear, Landon Bow, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True.
Five players from the Brandon club that bested the T-Birds in the spring of 2016 have since skated in the NHL; Jayce Hawryluk, Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, John Quennville and Clague. And for Regina, the 2017 WHL runner-up? Three other player besides Wagner, (Adam Brooks, Josh Mahura and Sam Steel), have suited up in the NHL.
Quite a bit of NHL talent has put skates down on the ice at the accesso ShoWare Center in just the last decade plus, players like Brenden Dillon and Thomas Hickey. And not just T-Birds players. Just from the U.S. Division alone, we've been spoiled to see the likes of current Boston Bruin and former Tri-City American Brandon Carlo. Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart honed his skills with the Everett Silvertips. Spokane produced New Jersey Devils defenseman Ty Smith while Columbus d-man Seth Jones helped lead the Winterhawks to a 2013 WHL title.
Those players are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more have reached the NHL level and still more are playing in the AHL, ECHL or pro leagues overseas. Now, another batch of talented players are chomping at the bit to join them including the T-Birds own Conner Roulette. But they need to play. That is why you put together an abbreviated 24 game schedule; for the players.