At nights, Tyrel Bauer performs in front of thousands of fans.
During the day, the 16-year-old is a straight-A student at Kentwood High School, despite living hundreds of miles from home, in a new country and with a new “family.”
It’s all part of the journey that Bauer hopes will lead to the NHL.
The rookie defenseman for the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds knew it would be a challenge as he pursues the same journey so many other young Canadian kids have taken before him.
It is the same path navigated so successfully by Mathew Barzal, last year’s NHL Rookie of the Year and a British Columbia native who played four seasons with the T-birds from 2013 to 2017.
Stories like Barzal’s provide young players inspiration, not that Bauer has needed much prodding to work hard, whether it be at hockey or in school.
Bauer, who is mature beyond his years, has been a pleasant surprise for the T-birds, more than holding his own against players a few years older. He is just as determined to do well at school.
“It can be a whirlwind for a young kid, living with a new family, new school, new country,” said Thunderbirds coach Matt O’Dette, who began his playing career in the same fashion. “That’s a lot to absorb for a young kid. Ty’s a pretty mature kid for his age and he’s handled it pretty smoothly.”
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Born to play hockey
Bauer, from a Calgary suburb, jokes he was born with skates on and doesn’t remember a time when he was not playing hockey and dreaming of playing in the NHL. At 6-3, 206 pounds, Tyrel excelled in baseball, soccer and wrestling, but his passion has always been hockey.
There are two primary paths to an NHL career: college or the junior leagues, where teens leave home, “billet” with new families and often attend local schools.
Not affiliated with an NHL team, the T-birds are in the Western Hockey League, which is for players 15 to 20 years old. As one of three top-tier junior leagues, it has long been a steppingstone to the NHL for Canadian prospects.
Bauer caught the attention of T-birds scouts while playing for the Airdrie Extreme Bantam AAA team in Alberta, and Seattle made Bauer its second-round selection in the 2017 Bantam draft.
Still, Bauer’s family wrestled with the choice.
“For me, it came down to the fact I felt I could be ready to play pro hockey by the time I was 20 years old as opposed to college where you have some more time,” said Bauer. “We looked at the academic part of it and were satisfied with the schooling the Western Hockey League provides. I believe I am a good enough student that I can manage the hardships I encounter.”
Bauer receives a small stipend and became ineligible to play for an NCAA team once he signed with the T-birds. The fact that the WHL offers a one-year full college scholarship for each year played in the league also helped sway his family.
It was time to start a new life.
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A heavy load
After signing with the T-birds, Bauer spent most of last season with the Airdrie Bisons in the Alberta Major Midget Hockey League.
Despite the upgrade in competition, he has been a solid contributor for the T-birds this year. Teammates’ injuries mean he’s gotten more playing time than a rookie might expect. Bauer said it’s been fun and challenging at the same time.
“Coming from midget hockey, we practiced two to three times a week with two games on the weekend and 36 in all,” he said. “You come here and you are practicing every day with a 68-game schedule and it’s a challenge just adapting to that.
“Back home, you had your life and you kind of played hockey on the side. Here it is hockey, with your life on the side.”
He’s also settled in nicely with Bill and Donna Skubinna of Kent, a billet family arranged by the T-birds, who have welcomed him with open arms. They’ve also become friendly with his parents, Steve and Raelyn, making it a little easier for them to see their youngest leave home early.
“Your kid dreams of this his whole life, but when it actually happens, it is like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute,’ ” said Raelyn Bauer, Tyrel’s mother. “But it’s great for him, and he loves it. It’s hard for us, but we’re following his dream, too, and that’s exciting for all of us.”
The two have traveled to Seattle several times to see their son play and, while at home in Cochrane, Alberta, they livestream his games.
The Bauers like the progress their son is making in hockey, but are just as interested in his schooling.
“We don’t worry about him too much from that perspective, but at the same time we are his parents and we check in on him just about every day and the subject of school comes up pretty regularly,” said Steve Bauer, who grew up as a goalie and still plays recreationally.
The Skubinnas, who have hosted players twice before, are impressed with what they’ve seen.
“He knows what it takes, what his responsibilities are and he knows there is no playing around,” said Bill Skubinna, who said Bauer is unfailingly polite, gracious and humble. “This is something he wants to do and he knows he has to be serious about it. He is a very smart kid, very intelligent and he knows how the world works. He knows you don’t get anything unless you work for it.”
Jared Crooks, the T-birds’ skill development and video coach, gets daily updates on his players’ progress at Kentwood. He had as many as 10 players there in the fall, and five now. Those five, including Bauer, will return to their Canadian schools at season’s end.
Kentwood counselor Jamie Eager works with the players to make sure the classes they are taking will transfer back to their Canadian schools. But it’s on the players to be successful in school while missing a lot of time during road trips to far-off places like Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Kamloops.
“It is tough for the guys, because they do miss a lot of school,” Eager said. “So they have to work really hard to get their work ahead of time and make sure they are studying on the road and do a lot of makeup when they come back. Although I communicate with the teachers about when they’ll be gone and when they’ll be back, the responsibility really is on them. They work really hard.”
Bauer is rare in his level of dedication and self-motivation when it comes to school. But it has always been like that for him.
“If you want to be good at something, you can,” Bauer said. “It comes down to work ethic. If it’s hockey, you practice, shoot pucks and take care of your body. If you want to be good in school, you study. I’ve learned from my parents that nothing is given to you.”
Those who know the mild-mannered Bauer might be surprised to see him on the ice, where he becomes a different person and is not afraid to fight when needed. Several, including a recent one against a 20-year-old, are on YouTube.
Bauer, whose missing upper front tooth was the result of a stick to the mouth at his fifth-grade party and not a fight or game wound, laughed when asked if he thinks older players are testing him.
“I think it’s more me testing them,” he said. “My dad used to always say, ‘You can be a super nice, very caring, understandable guy off the ice, but as soon as you hit the ice, it’s war.’ If somebody disrespects me or my teammates on the ice, then I’ll fight. … Once you come off the ice, you are back to who you are, with all your morals and values.”
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You certainly wouldn’t know Bauer is younger than his teammates by watching him on the ice. He has two goals, 12 assists and is tied for third on the team in penalty minutes — a testament to his physical style of play.
“Normally, a 16-year-old kid doesn’t have the kind of responsibilities on ice that he has had,” said O’Dette, the coach. “But he’s diligent as a hockey player, always putting in extra time with the coaches and (watching) video. What makes him special is the professionalism he has at that age. He’s the kind of dedicated guy we are looking for, both on the ice and in school.”
Scouts are undoubtedly watching, and he will be eligible for the NHL draft next season. He might continue playing with the T-birds even if he is drafted. The Islanders sent Barzal back to the T-birds for two more seasons after drafting him in the first round.
Bauer said he has not given any thought to what he might do if pro hockey does not work out, but knows college and the WHL scholarship money will be there. “It’s important to have that to fall back on,” he said.
In the meantime, he is dedicated to making his dream come true, hundreds of miles from home.
“It grows you up fast,” said O’Dette. “It’s important what they are doing on the ice, but it’s just as important that their school is where it needs to be and their home life is comfortable.”
Said mother Raelyn: “We are so grateful he is in a place where he is happy and can fit right in and that certainly helps with the transition of being away from home.”