Matt Fonteyne and his Everett Silvertips teammates are excited about Seattle’s prospects for the NHL and the added focus that’s brought upon them.
For five years, local junior hockey sniper Matt Fonteyne has watched the sport’s transformation in his adopted Washington hometown and greater region surrounding it.
A 35-goal scorer for the Everett Silvertips, hailing from the tiny Alberta town of Wetaskiwin, Fonteyne proudly tells how the father from the host family he’s been billeted with here is now a first-time player in an adult recreational league. And with his Silvertips vying for their first Western Hockey League championship, Fonteyne says he and teammates feel like ambassadors for the sport in a region awaiting the NHL.
“He said that when he first came here, he had no idea about it, maybe had seen it on TV a few times,’’ said Fonteyne, whose team is home against the Swift Current Broncos from Saskatchewan on Tuesday night in Game 3 of a best-of-seven WHL final series tied 1-1. “But he’s been a season-ticket holder for 15 years and I think a lot of the people that have been here for 15 years will say how much it’s grown.’’
This is the third consecutive year one of two Seattle-area teams has made the WHL final. The Seattle Thunderbirds won their first title last year after being a finalist the season before.
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Everett made it this far once before, in a near-miracle 2003-04 expansion season that saw the team swept in the championship round. The Silvertips have done one better this time, winning the series opener in Swift Current on Friday before blowing a 3-0 lead Saturday and losing 4-3 in overtime.
Fonteyne and teammates are excited about Seattle’s prospects for the NHL and the added focus that’s brought upon them.
“Going out to some of the practices in the youth hockey here, they kind of see you as being the NHL players because they don’t have anything close,’’ he said. “Bringing in a bigger (entity) like the NHL will just grow it more than it already has.’’
The Silvertips can cram 8,300 people inside Angel of the Winds Casino Arena. Riding that home momentum the next three games could lead to a WHL title and this region’s first back-to-back appearances in the Memorial Cup championship tournament.
“Obviously, with us and Seattle (Thunderbirds) being the two hockey teams closest to that (NHL) market coming in, it’s exciting to be a part of,’’ said Patrick Bajkov, the Silvertips’ top point-getter with 33 goals and 67 assists. “Obviously, we all hope it continues to grow … and I think being role models for that is pretty exciting for both teams.’’
To get here, the Silvertips made some blockbuster trades at the January deadline, upgrading what had been a merely adequate offense in front of standout goaltender Carter Hart.
They added center Garrett Pilon, a Washington Capitals prospect now leading all WHL players with 27 points in the playoffs. Also, the powerful slap shot of defenseman Ondrej Vala — a Czech Republic native and Dallas Stars prospect — has helped.
Forwards Bronson Sharp and Spencer Gerth were added for depth.
From there, league MVP Hart — a Philadelphia Flyers draftee and possibly the world’s best nonprofessional netminder — took care of the rest. The Silvertips finally ousted their longtime nemesis Thunderbirds 4-1 in the opening playoff round and lost only four games in three postseason series to make the final.
Swift Current, a town of 16,600, won its most recent of two WHL titles in 1992-93. The 1988-89 league champion famously won the Memorial Cup only three years after a bus crash had claimed the lives of four Broncos players.
That tragedy was revived last month when the Humboldt Broncos — a lower tier junior team from Saskatchewan — suffered a similar bus crash that killed 16 people, including players, the head coach, and other staffers.
The Memorial Cup — pitting the WHL champs against winners from leagues in Ontario and Quebec — takes place this year in Regina, the second-biggest Saskatchewan city and only a three-hour drive from Swift Current. So, there’s extra emotion and incentive for the visitors to succeed here.
Everett finished No. 1 in the league in fewest goals allowed while Swift Current was No. 2. The biggest surprise thus far was Swift Current pumping four goals behind Hart after he’d been staked to the Game 2 lead.
Silvertips coach Dennis Williams showed his players positive video clips from the defeat Saturday, saying they played very well. He reminded them “short-term memory’’ is critical come playoff time.
“Our group’s been really good at that,’’ he said. “It’s something we’ve stressed all season long.”
And if his team keeps listening, the Memorial Cup could again have a Seattle-area flavor.