The Seattle Thunderbirds raised their first-ever Western Hockey League championship banner and then won their season opener, 4-3 over the visiting Tri-City Americans.
Team captain Turner Ottenbreit enjoyed every second as the Seattle Thunderbirds raised their first-ever Western Hockey League championship banner on Saturday night in front of 6,104 delirious fans.
Then he had a pertinent question.
“Why can’t we win it again?” he asked. “We lost a lot of key players from that team last year, and that is a lot to overcome, but we have a lot of core guys back. I think we have the right guys to do it.”
The team’s first title came in its 40th-anniversary season, and it might be a lot to ask to repeat with 11 new players on its roster and almost all of its scoring graduated to the pro ranks.
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The Thunderbirds continued the celebration by beating the Tri-City Americans, the eighth-ranked team in the preseason Canadian Hockey League poll, 4-3 at newly named accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.
The winning score came on rookie defenseman Jake Lee’s first-ever WHL goal 48 seconds into the third period.
First-year Seattle coach Matt O’Dette was drenched with sweat after his team held on after Lee’s goal.
“We wanted to take all that energy we had from all our fans from the ceremony and ride it as long as we could,” O’Dette said. “All those screaming fans really gave us a lot of juice, and we wanted to keep that emotion going.”
O’Dette wasn’t surprised it was Lee who came out the hero.
“He can really shoot the puck,” O’Dette said. “This should really give him a lot of confidence, and it shows you never know who is going to score the game-winner.”
O’Dette, who served under former coach Steve Konowalchuk for four seasons, liked the way his team played after losing six of seven exhibition games.
“The guys came out and did all the little things you need to do to find a way to win,” O’Dette said. “We blocked shots, we got key saves when we needed them (from Matt Berlin, who finished with 31 saves). It was just a total team effort . . .”
Konowalchuk joined the staff of the NHL Anaheim Ducks as an assistant coach in June. In six seasons as coach of the Thunderbirds, Konowalchuk had a 219-176-22-15 record.
Ottenbreit, a key defender in the team’s championship run, sat out the opener. He served a one-game suspension for a hit in Game 6 when the T-birds beat Regina in overtime to take the title.
“A lot of players go their entire careers and never win a championship, so it’s great to do it so early in my career,” Ottenbreit said. “I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see that banner go up in our building.”
Jordan Topping scored twice for Tri-City in the first period.
But the Thunderbirds used goals by Sami Moilanen, Zack Andrusiak and Elijah Brown to tie the score entering the third period.
The Americans took a 3-2 lead on a short-handed goal by Parker AuCoin at 2:33 of the second period.
Ottenbreit was allowed to play in the Memorial Cup and has known for months he was going to miss the sold-out opener.
“Obviously it sucks not being able to play, especially after being honored by being named the team captain,” he said. “But sometimes you have to roll with the punches.”