The Thunderbirds face Kelowna starting Friday night to open a best-of-7 series.
A young Turner Ottenbreit stared longingly at the classroom computer his teacher had allowed him to watch for incoming results from the Western Hockey League’s annual Bantam-level draft.
One by one, players were drafted ahead of the lanky defenseman from the small Saskatchewan town of Yorkton, to where Ottenbreit, then 14, was brooding by the time his mother picked him up for a dental appointment. Upon returning home, a miserable, griping Ottenbreit flipped another computer on one last time — and saw his name chosen 261st overall by the Saskatoon Blades out of a possible 262 picks.
“It’s obviously a pretty cool feeling and you’re excited,’’ said Ottenbreit, 19, who launched into celebration mode and forgot the prior snubs. “I kind of knew what was going on and knew where I was picked, but I didn’t let it sink in. I didn’t think about it too much.’’
Seattle vs. Kelowna
Game 1: Friday, 7:35 p.m., ShoWare Center, Kent
Game 2: Saturday, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center, Kent
Game 3: Tuesday, 7:05 p.m., Prospera Place, Kelowna, B.C.
Game 4: Wednesday, 7:05 p.m., Prospera Place, Kelowna, B.C.
Game 5*: April 28, 7:35 p.m., ShoWare Center, Kent
Game 6*: April 30, 5:05 p.m., Prospera Place, Kelowna, B.C.
Game 7*: May 2, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center, Kent
Fast-forward five years, and the top-line Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman is no longer anybody’s second-to-last-choice. Paired with longtime Saskatchewan pal and NHL prospect Ethan Bear, Ottenbreit has helped the Thunderbirds advance to a third-round WHL playoff matchup against the Kelowna Rockets that opens Friday night at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
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The Thunderbirds’ depth has been evident throughout an 8-0 run in two playoff rounds against Tri-City and Everett. For every NHL draftee like Bear, there’s an unheralded Ottenbreit clawing his way to first-line recognition as the T-birds attempt to reach the WHL finals for a second straight year.
Interestingly enough, the player taken first overall in that Bantam draft back in 2012 was current Thunderbirds star center and New York Islanders prospect Mathew Barzal. And when the puck drops Friday, the near-bookend picks will be out there in the same starting five together.
“I’ve obviously gotten bigger and stronger,’’ the 6-foot-3, 192-pound Ottenbreit said of what WHL scouts might have initially missed. “Obviously, as you get older, things come. But just my defensive game.”
When both were 7, Ottenbreit’s dad, Grant, coached a regional “spring team’’ of the area’s best players, and he and Bear — who lived 65 miles away in the town of Ochapowace — played together on it.
Ottenbreit’s father was a commanding presence in Yorkton, where he played Junior A and set the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s all-time career penalty-minutes record with 1,329. Later, he racked up 845 more penalty minutes in three pro seasons with the Erie Panthers of the hard-nosed East Coast Hockey League.
“People all around town know me and know who I was,’’ Grant Ottenbreit said with a chuckle. “All the older guys will go for coffee and Turner will sit down with us once in a while and hear the stories and he laughs. The guys talk about all my fights and then I tell Turner, ‘You know, I had maybe 100 junior fights and if I’d won 20 of them I’d be lucky.’ ”
He’d teamed at Yorkton with Lee Odelein and became friends with his older brother, Lyle, who enjoyed a long NHL career. While playing for Montreal and New Jersey, Lyle Odelein told him about a favorite teammate on those NHL squads — former Thunderbirds star Turner Stevenson.
“He would always talk about how he showed up every night, how he did what it took to win and how he was a competitor,” Ottenbreit’s father said.
And though he never met Stevenson in person, Ottenbreit’s dad concluded “Turner” was the name he’d give his future son.
“When you have a kid that’s going to be an athlete, or you’re hoping he’s going to be an athlete, whether it’s school or sports, you want him to compete at everything.”
Ottenbreit said his father shaped his hockey career, buying him skates at age 3 and wrapping the blades in cloth so he could walk on the living room floor and get his ankles used to the feel. Later, they practiced on a small backyard rink, then a bigger one up the street.
“He’s a tough guy,” Ottenbreit said, grinning. “I wouldn’t fight him.”
Instead, he learned from him — borrowing some of his father’s toughness. He’d use it on the ice to lay the body on opposing forwards and away from it to forget about things like Bantam draft snubs.
The Thunderbirds acquired him from Saskatoon in a September 2014 trade, and coach Steve Konowalchuk has noticed the growth.
“When we got him at 17, he was a pretty gangly kid,” Konowalchuk said. “Not a ton of strength there, but you could see he had the ‘compete in hockey’ sense. Even at 17, against top players, he could compensate because of his hockey sense and his competing.”
The Thunderbirds will need Ottenbreit’s competitive edge against an offensive-minded Rockets squad. Ottenbreit led the T-birds in plus/minus with a plus-45 and helped shut down the high-scoring Tri-City Americans in the opening round.
“Their forwards are very strong,’’ Ottenbreit said of Kelowna. “They know how to put the puck in the net and … we’ve just got to come to the rink, play our game and try to outwork them.”
As he’s done every day since the draft nearly left him behind.