The future of the NHL is playing nearby in Kent and Everett and the T-birds are having perhaps their most glorious run in decades. Despite leaving KeyArena for Kent’s ShoWare Center in 2009, attendance has remained steady and the team nearly reached the Memorial Cup last season.
Taking the ice the morning after a pair of cross-country flights wasn’t how Seattle Thunderbirds left wing Ryan Gropp would have planned it.
He would have preferred avoiding his latest professional demotion altogether. But the New York Rangers were in charge, so, within 24 hours, their 2015 draft pick was off their Hartford-based farm team and back on the opposite coast with his major junior squad for another year of seasoning.
Jetlagged or not – and Gropp insisted he wasn’t – the T-birds were thrilled to have him. They’d experienced their own early lag attempting to follow their best playoff campaign in 20 years minus last season’s top point-getters Gropp and current New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal.
But with Gropp, 20, attending their morning skate before playing the visiting Spokane Chiefs that night, anything seemed possible — including another run at a Western Hockey League (WHL) championship that narrowly eluded the T-birds last spring in a dream season most of Seattle barely noticed.
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“I think we can really use that experience from last year to kind of guide us through the ups and downs of a season,’’ said Gropp, eager to help a mix of key veterans and newer faces continue what was started.
With apologies to local hockey old-timers, the T-birds’ “glory years’’ are happening now. The team, featuring elite prospects ages 16-20, just had its best three-year stretch – averaging 41 wins per 72-game season – since forming as the Seattle Breakers in 1977 before adopting the Thunderbirds name in 1985.
There’ve been past memorable teams, like the Glen Goodall-led 1989-90 Thunderbirds, which drew 12,000 fans to some games in setting franchise records with 52 wins and 107 points. The 1996-97 team reached the WHL finals, while the 1991-92 squad played in junior hockey’s showcase Memorial Cup championship as an automatic host city qualifier.
But last season’s team arguably bested all: going 45-23-4 for the second-most franchise wins and coming closest to reaching a Memorial Cup on merit. They dropped the first three contests of the WHL finals in overtime before falling to the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games.
Some lucky bounces, it could have been the T-birds as the Memorial Cup’s WHL representative. Instead, possibly their greatest season ended before much of Seattle realized it was happening.
Part of the T-birds being largely ignored within Seattle is they no longer play here. They left KeyArena in 2009 and moved 25 miles south to become anchor tenant at the new ShoWare Center in Kent, almost the same distance from downtown as the WHL rival Everett Silvertips to the north.
The T-birds average 4,200 fans at the 6,500-seat arena, mostly from Tacoma, Kent and Tukwila. Attendance remains remarkably steady; with the franchise drawing the same as when winning a pair of Seattle-based division titles early last decade.
They remain the closest thing to “Seattle” professional hockey; graduating 84 former Thunderbirds and Breakers to the NHL, including Ken Daneyko, Ryan Walter, Petr Nedved, Tim Hunter, Patrick Marleau and Brendan Witt. In many ways, major junior hockey in the Pacific Northwest has never been stronger.
It’s just more suburban.
“It was cool back then and I think it’s the same now,’’ said T-birds’ coach Steve Konowalchuk, the former Washington Capitals captain who played for the WHL Portland Winter Hawks from 1990-92.
“Now, it’s such an opportunity. Now, you don’t just have Portland, but you’ve got Everett up the road with really good fans and our building is so exciting. So now, I think it’s a special opportunity within the division for U.S. kids to get a different taste of hockey than what it is in Canada.’’
The son of a transplanted Alberta oil worker, Konowalchuk, the NHL’s first Utah-born player, now sees locals aspiring to hockey above football or baseball. T-birds forward Luke Ormsby, 17, the team’s only Washington native, grew up a Silvertips fan in Everett upon their formation in 2003.
“We had season tickets,’’ Ormsby said. “We’d go to every game.’’
Ormsby began “Mites” hockey at age 6 inside the Silvertips’ Xfinity Arena home. “My parents said ‘Pick a sport’ and I tried everything, but only really liked hockey. I just fell in love with it.’’
The night of Gropp’s return, Ormsby’s T-birds faced a Spokane team featuring Washington hockey’s brightest star in forward Kailer Yamamoto. The Spokane native’s go-ahead, third-period goal sent the T-birds toward a 3-1 loss.
Yamamoto, 18, next summer could become the highest Washington-born player drafted to the NHL, eclipsing the 20th overall selection of Ellensburg defenseman David Wilkie by Montreal in 1992.
Ormsby teamed briefly with Yamamoto playing Midget-level hockey in Los Angeles and worked out last summer in Scottsdale, Ariz., alongside No. 1 overall NHL draft pick Auston Matthews, the Arizona-born Toronto Maple Leafs rookie star.
“I want to pursue hockey as far as I can,’’ Ormsby said. “It’s been my whole life.’’
The T-birds have two Americans – Ormsby and captain Scott Eansor – and two allowable non-North American imports on their 23-man roster. Despite big American inroads, the WHL’s U.S. Division is still about small town Canadian teenagers, and some Europeans, experiencing life away from home in Kent, Everett, Portland, Spokane or the Tri-Cities.
They’re billeted by families and paid weekly stipends. High-school age players must attend classes.
“It was obviously hard because a lot of stuff was different from home,’’ said third-year T-birds’ scoring leader Alexander True, 19, from a small town in Denmark. “The language was the biggest difference. It also feels like everything’s so big over here. Back home, I’d take my bike or walk everywhere. I wouldn’t need a car.’’
Critics call major junior hockey a de facto pro circuit and some recently complained to the Washington Department of Labor and Standards that for-profit WHL teams violated state law by not paying players minimum wage. After WHL pushback, the law was amended last year excluding players from being classified as employees.
The WHL offers one year of college scholarship money for every season completed – saying 350 former players benefitted last season.
Players choosing the WHL over NCAA hockey typically view its NHL-style schedule as the quickest route to the pros. But even a standout junior career guarantees nothing.
In the NHL, how you play without the puck is as critical as with it. It’s why wing Gropp, a 30-goal scorer his past two T-birds seasons, was sent back by the Rangers.
T-birds all-time scoring leader Goodall never reached the NHL despite being drafted by Detroit after scoring 76 goals in 1989-90. But Goodall at least enjoyed a pro career in Europe.
Junior star Jacques Goyette wasn’t even drafted and never played again after also scoring 76 goals in 1983-84 for the Quebec-based Laval Voisins. NHL scouts dismissed Goyette’s totals as resulting mostly from having future Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux as his linemate.
T-birds coach Konowalchuk, who played 842 NHL games, understands what the pros want.
He’s implored his players to be more physical, sensing they surrendered the puck too easily in splitting their first four games. That changed against Spokane, with the T-birds outshooting the Chiefs 45-22, but squandering chances.
The misses continued in 3-2 losses, to the Prince George Cougars at home and the Silvertips in Everett. Konowalchuk expected an early letdown might follow last spring’s magic.
“Junior is a little bit different than pro in that I think every year, every team has guys that will be coming into their second or third year and getting a little complacent,’’ he said. “They just think it’s going to be easier because now they’re a year older.
“We have a little bit more of that with the excitement of last year … a little more complacency, but for the most part the team has changed enough that new guys know they have to step up.’’
It didn’t help that Gropp was scratched with a lower body injury before last Friday’s ensuing game against visiting Portland. Or, that third-year wing Nolan Volcan seemed to hit the cross bar early on despite a wide-open net.
It took 38 seconds before play was halted and a video review showed Volcan’s shot had entered the net.
The snakebit T-birds welcomed the goal and momentum, quickly scoring again for a 2-0 lead. Portland got one back, but the T-birds added an empty-net goal late for a 3-1 victory.
Konowalchuk was pleased but felt his team could have converted more chances.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with chemistry,’’ he said. “Individual guys need to bury the puck.’’
One night later, they lost, 5-1, to the visiting Kelowna Rockets.
At 3-5-0-1 so far, there’s work needed to extend these T-birds glory years. It’s possible Barzal, last season’s point-leader with 88, could soon be returned by the Islanders.
But the T-birds know they can’t bank on NHL-ringers rejoining them every month.
They know they all must do more if this season is to be taken as seriously as last: whether in Seattle, Kent or anyplace else.