When we last left off on our oral history of the Seattle Thunderbirds 2017 WHL Championship season, Seattle had swept the Everett Silvertips in the second round and were set to play a series with the Kelowna Rockets in the conference finals for the second time in two years.
The Thunderbirds went up early against the Rockets but would suffer an injury in Game 4 that seemed like it might sink the ship. Defenseman Ethan Bear was hit with a puck that would break a bone in his hand and force him to miss the remainder of the series.
As they had all year, the Thunderbirds managed to overcome and advance in six games.
Ethan Bear: They had a five-on-three and I think it was Reid Gardiner who came back as a 20. He was a powerhouse; he had a hard shot. Sure enough, I went down to block it and broke my finger. For me, that was pretty frightening.
Keegan Kolesar: It was a tough one because I know how he felt. No one wants to miss out, especially in the playoffs. When a player like that goes down you think about it for a second and it’s next man up. He was a huge portion of our defense.
Austin Strand: When he went down and blocked that shot, we lost a key guy. It was pretty tough there.
Donovan Neuls: That one really set us back. He was just a big part of our team and a bigger part of our power play with his shot from the point. With him in the lineup we were all really confident.
Bear: I remember going out in the warmups (in the next game) to try and get them to think I’m ready to go. I think everyone was too smart for that. They knew I was faking it. I knew I couldn’t go. I was just trying to be a decoy and get in their heads and act like I was going.
Scott Eansor: Through all these injuries Steve (Konowalchuk) did an excellent job making everyone feel they were a part of the team. Guys stepped up, all the D. They really stepped up in those key moments.
Bear: One thing I’ll always remember is the practice before Game 1 of the finals to determine if I was going to play. Barzy was saying, ‘You’re good to go, you’re good to go.’ There was one neutral zone pass where I sauced it to Gropper and all the boys were tapping their sticks saying, ‘You’re in!’
Kolesar: I remember the practice because their coaching staff was watching from the balcony. We knew they were watching so we mixed up everything. All our jerseys were different, different lines just so we could throw them off.
Turner Ottenbreit: He had surgery and it was up in the air. Just before the Regina series he came out in practice and somehow looked normal. I don’t know how he did it.
Strand: He was playing with a broken hand the rest of the way. Big ups for him being such a beast. I think he was even taking one-timers and they were still bombs.
Bear returns as the Thunderbirds open the Championship Series in Regina
Game 1 of the WHL Championship series was eventful. Bear played and opened the scoring when he blasted a point shot to put the Thunderbirds up 1-0.
Bear: One of my favorite goals I’ve ever scored. I didn’t know that I could take slapshots. They were giving me all the time and space and I just took it. It made them tighten up.
Matt O’Dette: It was a goosebump moment when he came back against Regina. We were wondering how much he could shoot, and he rips one bar down from the point. We knew at that point that Bearsy was back. That was a turning point, we needed Bearsy and Bearsy was back.
Eansor: Bear is like everyone’s best friend on the team, he was one of my best buddies. It was so fun having him out there and battle through that. It wasn’t easy on him, that was tough. He’s an ox and he’s still shooting one-timers with a broken bone.
Ottenbreit: Game one and ripped one top corner and it shut up everyone.
Game 1 took a turn early when Ottenbreit caught Regina star Adam Brooks with an open ice hit. Brooks left the game and would not return until Game 6.
Bear: That kind of showed Otto’s game, his dominance, his presence. He doesn’t back down from anybody and it gave us confidence. We’re a physical team and we might have 50 hits a game. It was why we win, we talked to guys we played, and they hated it.
Eansor: That’s a series-changing hit right there. You never want to see a guy hurt but Otto was massive in that series and he was a big, big part of our team.
Strand: I think that definitely worried those guys. Just losing your best players is tough and then everyone is thinking twice. It built on our confidence.
Ottenbreit: You only play those guys once a year and I don’t know if they knew what to expect. We were a big physical team and that’s part of the reason we were successful. You don’t like to see anyone get hurt.
Kolesar: I’m really tight with Brooks, we grew up together. That was a tough one to watch, but at the end of the day I wanted to win a championship and after the game I called him to see if we was ok. He was good with it; he was pissed because it was his last year. Part of me always wonders how the series would have gone because he was such a good player.
Game 1 would go into overtime and Bear once again would show his toughness. He took another big shot from the point that hit the crossbar. Neuls was there to get the rebound and Seattle took a 1-0 series lead.
Neuls: He hit the crossbar and it was just laying there. I just remember the puck sitting there and I don’t think I had two hands on my stick, I shot it like a pool stick. I remember after the game, my mom told me she couldn’t even watch the overtime.
Thunderbirds return home to a packed ShoWare Center
Seattle lost Game 2 in Regina. Tied at 1-1, the series shifted back to Seattle and the ShoWare Center. Regina won Game 3 but the Thunderbirds stormed back with two dominant wins to take control of the Championship series. Game 5 was memorable, as it was the largest crowd in ShoWare Center history and the last for the Thunderbirds core group who were now just one win away from winning the WHL Championship series.
Neuls: It was crazy. Game 5 was insane and was the loudest crowd I’ve played in. It gave me chills and they are the best fans I’ve played in front of.
Bear: Honestly, like nothing I’d ever played in. The crowd in Seattle, in Kent, is unbelievable. It was insane how loud that rink is and how loud it got. It’s some of the best memories I have. To play those final three games and win is a good memory for everybody. It was definitely hard to say goodbye.
Eansor: I just remember thinking, knowing it was my last game at the Showare, just feeling in the back of your head you’re just so thankful being able to play there. I wanted to leave a mark in my last game and that was a big thing for all of us. We loved being there and playing for Seattle. That last game and atmosphere I don’t think any of us will forget.
Kolesar: The last game, it was emotional. That was a tough one, we fell behind and battled back and finally ran away with it. During the whole game I thought, ‘This is it, the last time playing in the Showare.’ It’s hard to think about after so many games.
Ottenbreit: We always have the best fans in the league and they’re next to none. I can’t say enough good things about the fans in Seattle.
The Thunderbirds return to Regina with a chance to wrap up Championship Series
Up 3-2 in the series, the Thunderbirds headed back to Regina on the doorstep of winning a championship. The pressure was on to win the series in Game 6 and avoid an anything-goes Game 7.
Neuls: We knew we didn’t want a Game 7, we wanted to close it out.
Kolesar: Hell yeah, if you ask anyone on the team, we were pretty tapped out. With injuries, it put a lot on us, and everyone was dealing with something. We said, ‘We have to get it done, tonight.’
Eansor: We would reset after every game. That was our mindset the whole way through. Every game was just as important as the first and we wanted to win that game. No one wants to play a Game 7 with the championship on the line.
Ottenbreit: You never want to leave anything up to chance, if you have the chance you want to do it. We didn’t want them to have fresh air.
Strand: At that point, you’re exhausted and we were all exhausted. We just wanted to win it that night, just end it. There’s no point in going on.
The game was tight, and Regina scored in the third period to take a 3-1 lead late in the game. Seattle would score twice to tie and send the game to overtime.
Kolesar: It was remarkable. We went down two goals, and we were still thinking we had it. There was no panic on our bench. We were a confident group and felt like a team that could rise to any occasion.
Bear: To get the first one from Gropper who goes absolutely top cheese, we had them on their toes and when that happens, they start holding back. Sure enough, they get a penalty, and we took a timeout. This is it, let’s go, we’re not backing down. Kolesar takes that one-timer, and it magically goes in and I thought, ‘We’re not going to lose.’
Kolesar: I thought it went off Barzy and I was going to hug him. Lucky it hit someone’s skate and went in.
Eansor: We were really pumped and took one or two minutes to be satisfied, and as soon as that was over we reset. We had to win the game, nothing else mattered. Inch by inch, shift by shift, guys stepped up.
Strand: Once we got it to overtime, we knew the momentum was on our side.
Bear: In the room we were dialed in. No one was putting their head down, we were going. We didn’t have a lot of gas left; we played a lot of hockey. But it was time to empty the tanks.
Alexander True scores in overtime to vault the Thunderbirds to their first WHL Championship series win
It’s one of the biggest goals in Seattle hockey history and came in overtime. The play started with a set breakout behind the Thunderbirds net. Austin Strand had the puck and three passes later it was in the net and the Thunderbirds had won.
Strand: It’s a set play. It’s funny because we worked on that at the beginning of every practice. It was one of a couple different breakouts.
O’Dette: With any game, and playoffs especially, you never know which play might be the deciding play. Things you practice throughout the year can pay off. All those tedious, first play warmups, breakouts can pay off.
Strand: A couple weeks earlier I was talking to Oddie about the timing of it. True would come to the bottom circle near our net and get his speed going. I would get it to my D partner [Aaron] Hyman who got it to Keegs and by that time True would be at full speed.
O’Dette: If they take away your center you go D-to-D and hope your center can out-race the coverage and that’s what True did.
Kolesar: My line changed, and I was on the far side and had to stay on until it got in deep. If I changed, I didn’t know what would happen. I saw True coming, so I handed it off. When I saw him have a two-on-one I thought I could be the high guy.
Neuls: I was in the middle of the bench. I had a good angle, and I think even before he put it in the net, I had a foot over the boards.
Bear: I got off the ice just before that and my legs were cramping up, everyone was playing over 30 minutes. Everyone was starting to cramp up. I remember barely being able to jump the bench and it was one of the craziest moments of my life.
Eansor: I just remember gasping for air and then seeing we had a break and seeing he had all the time in the world to put it in and it was so slow. Just pure happiness after that, the coaches too, realizing what they did for us it was a special feeling.
O’Dette: I looked up and saw the bomb play happening and started getting excited when True had a step. I think I blacked out from there. It was mob scene.
Kolesar: I couldn’t have been more pumped. I had to take off my helmet first, I just wanted it to be off and not get choked. I ended up head butting True with his helmet on, and it hurt.
Strand: I was on the ice. It was the end of my shift and I was going for a change and thought I’d go in. I just threw my gloves and ran in there; it was just hugs and screaming.
Ottenbreit: I was fully out of my gear and sitting in the training room for an hour and a half (after being kicked out of the game for a hit). When we won, I dressed as fast as I could. Last week when I watched the game it was the first time I saw the third period. I was underground when it all happened.
Strand: I was almost in tears when the Cup came out.
Eansor: To be honest I didn’t know what to do with the Cup. I didn’t know where to skate. I was bickering with Barzy during the ceremony thinking we should both lift it. He said, ‘You got it.’ It was kind of funny, it just shows he’s a great guy and good leader and he respected me. In my personal opinion it would have been great to share it with him.
Bear: I’ll never forget it. That’s something nobody will take away from you.
O’Dette: I came close as a player but lost in the finals twice in the American League. Being able to be part of a championship team as a coach it’s a different feeling but just as rewarding.
Kolesar: Those guys are my brothers, always will be. I tell everyone there won’t be a tighter group. Everything we went through that season.