Ex-Seattle Thunderbirds center Alexander True and Bonney Lake native Dylan Gambrell are knocking on the NHL's door with the minor league San Jose Barracuda. Both have ties to New York Islanders standout Mathew Barzal, who put on a memorable weekend All-Star Game display in San Jose.
Inside the NHL
To no one’s surprise, our city’s biggest presence in San Jose at this past weekend’s NHL All-Star Game came from onetime Seattle Thunderbirds junior star Mathew Barzal.
The reigning NHL Rookie of the Year for the first-place New York Islanders scored twice and added three assists for the Metropolitan Division squad in a 10-5 tournament championship victory Saturday over the Central Division. Unlike all-star contests in other leagues, the NHL version features teams from all four divisions playing abbreviated games tournament-style with two semifinals and a finals match.
But while British Columbia native Barzal was just passing through San Jose for the weekend, two other professional centermen with ties to both him and the Seattle area have been lighting the lamp year-round in that city. Barzal’s ex-Thunderbirds teammate Alexander True, 21, and Bonney Lake native Dylan Gambrell, 22, sit No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in scoring for the San Jose Barracuda, the American Hockey League affiliate of the city’s NHL Sharks.
“He only comes though town once a year, so we try to keep in touch,’’ True said of Barzal. “It’s too bad that we were out of town all weekend because I’m sure we would have found a way to catch up.’’
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The Barracuda share the SAP Center with the Sharks and were on an eastern road trip to free up the venue for All-Star festivities, which included a skills competition Friday in which Barzal placed third in the “fastest skater” event behind perennial winner Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres.
True scored the overtime winner for the Barzal-captained Thunderbirds team that clinched their first Western Hockey League championship in 2017, but he went undrafted due to concerns about his own skating ability compared to his speedier teammate. After foregoing his final year of junior eligibility, True signed a two-year deal with the Barracuda and scored 15 goals and compiled 28 points last season while emerging as a solid power-play contributor in his inaugural AHL campaign.
That led the Sharks to reward him with a three-year, $925,000 entry-level contract last July. And True is now justifying that with a team-high 34 points — 12 goals and 22 assists — in just more than half this sophomore season with the Barracuda.
“I think it’s just the everyday work I’ve put in,’’ said True, expected to make his NHL debut later this season. “I get all of the possibility to develop over here and it’s been the best place. All of the small things are starting to add up.’’
Second-round draft pick Gambrell already made his debut for the Sharks in three games last spring, becoming the 14th Washington native to play in the NHL after three years with the University of Denver. He’s been recalled twice by the Sharks this season – including a stint earlier this month – and got into two more games.
“It’s been a dream come true, really, especially growing up in Washington,’’ Gambrell said. “You can see hockey is getting more popular over there now, but it wasn’t as much when I was growing up.’’
The Kent Valley Hockey Association youth grad had to leave home at 14 to play for an Under-16 Colorado elite team. Then, Gambrell faced a choice between returning to play juniors for the Thunderbirds – a team he’d watched with his family growing up when they held season tickets – or going the NCAA route.
The Thunderbirds brought him in to a training camp at age 16 where he was put on a line with a then-15-year-old Barzal. The pair dominated most of the scrimmages they partook in together.
“We actually had a really good camp that year,’’ Gambrell said. “It was a great experience and they wound up having a really good team that year. But by then, I was already sort of committed to going to school. That was always my deal throughout and I stuck to it.’’
Rather than choosing the major junior route like True, he instead played three seasons for an Iowa-based team in the United States Hockey League – a junior circuit where players don’t lose their NCAA eligibility. After that, it was on to Denver for a college experience he cherished, getting nominated for a 2018 Hobey Baker Award – college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy – his junior year.
Nowadays, with an NHL team having been awarded to Seattle for October 2021, Gambrell hopes it increases opportunities locally for young players so they don’t have to leave home so young like he did.
“I think it’s going to be huge for youth hockey there,’’ Gambrell said. “It will just bring more popularity and there will be more youth programs available. I think there will be more opportunity in general coming from that.’’
Like Gambrell, True also feels “pumped’’ at the prospect of eventually playing an NHL game in a city that became his adopted home after leaving Denmark.
For now, he and Gambrell find common ground cheering for Seattle-based teams in other sports. And knowing that, just as Barzal is now excelling at the sport’s highest level, they’ve played alongside him and will soon get their chance to prove they belong.
“A couple of years back I was playing (for Denmark) at the World Juniors against some really good players, including Mat,’’ True said. “It was good to see because you knew a lot of those guys were going to the NHL and they weren’t super-human like I’d once believed.
“So, it’s awesome to see a guy like Mat doing so well. He’s worked hard and deserved it. I know that if I keep working hard, someday that could be me playing up there as well.’’