It happened on Mother’s Day 2017. In Regina, Saskatchewan, Game 6 of the Western Hockey League’s Championship went to overtime. At 12:46 in the extra frame, Seattle’s Alexander True knocked his own rebound into the Regina Pats goal to give the Thunderbirds their first league championship.
Looking at the Thunderbirds roster you might think that winning the championship was a no-brainer for Seattle. Led by Mathew Barzal and Ethan Bear, the Thunderbirds had five players who would go on to play in the NHL.
But Seattle didn’t breeze its way to glory.
The Thunderbirds faced uncertainty both during the regular season and in the playoffs. They had to rely on a green 16-year-old rookie goalie along with what seemed to be a playoff-ending injury to Bear.
They overcame it all and this is their story told by some of the players that were there. To help re-live that magical season, we spoke with Bear, his defense partner Turner Ottenbreit, co-captain Scott Eansor, winger Donovan Neuls, defenseman Austin Strand, winger Keegan Kolesar, and assistant coach Matt O’Dette.
O’Dette served as Steve Konowalchuk’s assistant and took over the Seattle bench the next season. He is one of the last remaining links to that team who is still with the Thunderbirds.
The 2016-2017 season started after the Thunderbirds dropped a tough four games to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL Championship Series the spring before. That loss lingered into the offseason and into the new year.
Ethan Bear: It was very tough. We went all the way to the finals and when another team hoists the trophy in your arena, it stings. We really wanted to win. They were a good team so hats off, but it lit that fire inside all of us returning guys.
Keegan Kolesar: It was a hard one honestly. I know a lot of guys from that team, and I see them in the summer and it always gets brought up. We have a huge argument about it and I lose it because we didn’t win.
Donovan Neuls: It was nice to get there but very disappointing. The worst part was we lost three games in overtime, being up in the third period. Looking back now a couple of overtime goals they got the bounces and we didn’t.
Matt O’Dette: Looking back, there was a really good chance we could have put two in a row together. Arguably we might have had a better team but lost those first three games going into overtime. I think in each we had a lead in the third period. Just the way we lost them was heartbreaking. Great series and obviously a lot of guys from both teams moved on to the NHL. The bounces just didn’t go our way.
Scott Eansor: It was the first time we had gone far in the playoffs and we really came together that year. To see the older guys go, we had a really good leadership group. We were really unsure as to who was coming back next year, and it was really hard to lose that.
Turner Ottenbreit: That was really tough. We had a great team that year and Brandon was a great team too. It was a great series.
Kolesar: At the time I thought we had pissed away our chance to win it all.
Thunderbirds start 2016-2017 season with uncertainty
Who would return the next year? Ryan Gropp and his deadly wrist shot had been drafted and signed by the New York Rangers. A would-be 20-year-old that could really help was likely not coming back. Barzal was going to head to the New York Islanders training camp with an eye on making the NHL. As the season began, neither player was in Seattle.
Neuls: We weren’t sure what to expect. We weren’t sure if those big guys were coming back.
Kolesar: I was confident in our team the next year too. I looked at our roster and thought depending on who gets traded, who makes pro, we still have a really good roster, but you never know how many chances you have.
Eansor: I don’t think we had expectations. When some of those guys were away a lot of guys stepped up. We were winning but not at the rate that we were with those key guys. Guys like Donny Neuls, Nolan Volcan, and Sami Moilanen really stepped up and I think that gave them some confidence in secondary scoring and leadership.
O’Dette: A lot of unknowns. We were looking to build off our playoff experience. Hoping for Barzy to come back and when he came back, we were really in business. You didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen and then we got Gropp back as a 20 and now the band was back together.
Kolesar: You want to see your buddies move on to the next level. We were all rooting for Barzy and Gropper to make the jump to the next level…I think the team was in limbo trying to figure out what to do. Were we gearing up for another run or going into a rebuild?
The Thunderbirds welcomed Gropp back first after the New York Rangers sent him back from the AHL.
Bear: That was a surprise…(Gropp) coming back, he had that extra motivation and it gave us an extra spark getting Gropper back. He’s a sniper and a damn good player.
Eansor: It was a big boost. Groppy is an awesome guy in the locker room and just really a positive, good guy and it just cheers you up to see one of your best buddies come back. But it’s also sad, he deserved to stay up there.
A month after the surprise return of Gropp, word broke that the Islanders had returned Barzal to the Thunderbirds.
Kolesar: The dogs are back. We had our core group back and once we all knew we had the roster that we did, we knew we had something special.
Neuls: Everybody was excited because we knew we had a chance. We had a good group of guys who played well together.
O’Dette: He’s a friend of all the guys in the room, it was a close-knit team. When you get him back morale goes up off the ice and then the type of player you’re adding on the ice, he’s one of the best players in the league. You add that and it could be a 180 for your team. As coaches, it was hard not to be excited.
Ottenbreit: We’re having a great season as it is and to get that guy back in the lineup. We know what kind of player he is, he’s a special player and just a great person all around.
Barzal’s first game back was in Vancouver as the Thunderbirds beat the Vancouver Giants. After the game, Barzal said he told the team that he’d spring for Chipotle if they won. Did he own up and pay?
Bear: I have no clue. I don’t remember that. He bought Chipotle a couple times, so he probably did own up to it.
Ottenbreit: I’m not sure, I can’t remember but he bought us enough stuff.
Neuls:There’s no way he did. He might have bought us one along the line but there’s no way he bought us all one together.
Eansor: Probably not. He probably didn’t own to that. He didn’t at all.
Kolesar: I would give him credit if he actually did it, but I know for sure that guy sat on his wallet. Bear is just being nice.
Thunderbirds make depth moves at trade deadline to make championship run
With the offense in place, the Thunderbirds looked to shore up their defense. At the trade deadline, general manager Russ Farwell swung a pair of trades that weren’t blockbusters but helped provide much needed depth. In separate moves, he added Aaron Hyman from the Calgary Hitmen and Austin Strand from the Red Deer Rebels.
Austin Strand: I kind of expected a trade. I wasn’t sure where, but I was talking with my agent and thought it would be best for me to go somewhere else. It happened early January after Christmas break. I was taking a pregame nap and my billet dad woke me up… I was pretty pumped when I heard Seattle because my best buddy (Rylan) Toth got traded there at the beginning of the year.
Kolesar: They were great guys. I got to sit next to Hyman in the locker room and I got to know him. He was easy to get along with, same with Strander. We had an incredible group of guys which made that season a lot of fun.
Ottenbreit: Those two played a huge role for us and bolstered the blue line. They were huge all the second half and playoffs and stepped up big time. We knew we could score but didn’t know how our defense would be, but they stepped up.
O’Dette: At the time they felt like subtle moves but to win a championship you need six D that can play. We were fairly top-heavy at the time with Bear and Ottenbreit. We needed depth to stretch out our back end some more. Russ made some crafty moves to add Strand and Hyman. It put less stress on our top two defenseman there.
Strand: They brought me on board and told me to do what I do. I remember I had a pretty good game in Seattle and Russ remembered that. They just told me to fit in as much as I could. I ended up getting to know those guys really well.
Eansor: The two big things with those guys is, they fit right in…they both fit in so well. Strander didn’t play with us very long but he still comes out to help with Bearsy’s camp. As a player he played a role and he stepped up to the plate and as you can see by him earning an NHL contract, he’s a really good player.
The Thunderbirds had a championship roster but faced key injuries in second half
The adversity started on New Year’s Eve against the Portland Winterhawks. Eansor, one of the team’s co-captains and key players, was injured. He would go on to miss the bulk of the season’s second half. He wasn’t alone as the Thunderbirds found a way to keep winning despite several injuries and would end the season with an impressive 46-20-4-2 record.
Eansor: Sitting on the sidelines after a strong start to the season is never easy. What really made it nice was everybody was stepping up to the plate. I definitely cared about future aspirations of pro hockey, but I really wanted to enjoy and win in my last year in Seattle. It was really hard be a leader and having new guys not really knowing you since you’re not around.
Bear: It was almost like we would win at will. When we get together, we talk about it and laugh about it. A lot of our success came from having good coaches in Kono and O’Dette. They kept pushing us and after every win we’d celebrate for 30 minutes and then move on… We were bred that season to never be satisfied. We had a lot of guys willing to play their roles and bear down with every chance. We really didn’t have ego on that team. It was a really close group and I’ve never been on a team like that.
Kolesar: It was just the next man was up. No matter what happened we were still a confident team. I think that was our greatest attribute. No matter what happened we felt we were going to win.
Ottenbreit: I think the depth was huge but also going into games being confident that we could win every night. We had that mindset. We went into games knowing we were going to win. Confidence, you’d be surprised how long you could roll with that… We always had guys who would step it up.
Strand: If guys went out other guys stepped up. We had so much depth, our third line I think had Volcan and Eansor. We just knew once one of those guys got hurt everyone would elevate their game. Kono had us on a tight ship and everyone was accountable.
Neuls: A lot of guys just stepped up when they needed to. With the top guys, the other guys might have been overlooked a little bit. We didn’t necessarily fill their shoes, but we helped get the job done.
Eansor: I felt kind of guilty being out, but I just couldn’t do it.
O’Dette: Those types of situations battle test you. Strengthens your team, strengthens those bonds. When the playoffs came and we had some more kinks, those adversities that hit us in the playoffs, we were used to those things that happened. It’s just rolling with the punches.
The Thunderbirds tore down the stretch in a race with the Everett Silvertips. They would endure a couple more big injuries as the playoffs loomed. We’ll have that and more in part two of our oral history, coming soon on Sound Of Hockey.