The Seattle Thunderbirds raised eye brows all across the hockey world this season when they acquired star player after star player, making no bones about the fact they were all in to win a WHL championship and—perhaps—a Memorial Cup as the best team in the entire CHL.
To the surprise of nobody, the T-Birds rolled through the WHL Playoffs before coming up just one game short of major junior hockey’s ultimate prize; the Quebec Remparts got that glory, beating Seattle 5-0 in the Memorial Cup Final. Still, the 2022-23 Thunderbirds will go down in history as one of the best junior hockey teams ever assembled.
“We’ve had really special groups of people in the past, and this was a special group of people too,” said Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge. “But I think that talent level on the ice every night was beyond anything I’ve seen in my years in this league.”
“Special” is an understatement. By the end of the season, La Forge had constructed a roster that featured 10 players who had already been drafted by NHL teams, including a whopping five players that had been selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. The team went 54-11-3 in the regular season, then cruised through the playoffs, losing just three games en route to hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
How did the Thunderbirds go about building such an exceptional roster? Sound Of Hockey spoke with La Forge to find out.
A powerhouse five years in the making
La Forge and his staff begin planning their depth charts five years in advance. With the ages of players in the WHL ranging from 16 to 20, and a limit of three 20-year-old players on each team, the proverbial prime of a junior hockey player’s career comes when he hits age 19. So when Seattle is able to draft a group of talented, young players that are all going to turn 19 in the same season, La Forge knows that core of players could have a chance to make a run at a championship.
La Forge saw early in their WHL careers that 2003-born forwards like Lucas Ciona, Reid Schaefer, Sam Popowich, and Mekai Sanders, plus defenseman Jeremy Hanzel and goalie Thomas Milic, had potential as a group to grow into a winner.
“I think you really start to target a group when you see them enter their 16-year-old season,” said La Forge. “We thought that was a really impressive draft, and that was something that we could build off of going forward and target that team to be a championship team when they were 19.”
Success can’t just come from one age group, though, so to build a strong foundation, a team needs to find success in the WHL Bantam Draft multiple years in a row. La Forge’s scouting staff did just that by layering in ’04-born players like Jordan Gustafson, Nico Myatovic, and Kevin Korchinski to support that class of ’03-born players.
La Forge’s early assessment of the ’03 group bore out during their 18-year-old seasons. In 2021-22, the Thunderbirds rolled all the way to the WHL Championship Series before losing to the Edmonton Oil Kings, who were led by Dylan Guenther and Luke Prokop.
“I think last year was probably a year earlier than most expected,” said La Forge. “We were confident in our group, but it’s tough to win in this league with a group of 18-year-olds.”
Making such a deep playoff run at that stage proved to La Forge that the time was nigh to go all in for 2022-23.
All the pieces “fall into place”
The series loss to Edmonton in 2021-22 also taught La Forge a valuable lesson about what his club had and what it needed to get over the hump. He saw the Oil Kings rolling out three lines of players that could theoretically play on a top line in the WHL, and he didn’t think the Thunderbirds quite had that kind of depth.
So, in 2022-23, he set out to add star power to the top of his lineup, both on offense and defense, through a series of low-risk, potentially high-reward trades. He targeted a trio of players that had already moved on to the pro ranks but still had WHL eligibility in Prokop, Guenther, and Brad Lambert, hoping at least one or two of the three might get sent back to juniors.
Being that there was a real possibility the players would never play for the Thunderbirds, La Forge was able to swing conditional deals. For example, on the Guenther trade, Seattle sent the rights to 2007-born forward Koji Gibson and a fourth-round pick in the 2024 bantam draft regardless of if Guenther got sent back by the Arizona Coyotes. Once he did get sent back, then Edmonton received six additional draft picks spread over the next four seasons.
Lo and behold, all three players ended up with the Thunderbirds before the end of the season.
“We felt that in those deals, we got maybe a better price point than we would have, had those guys already been in the league,” said La Forge. “I think a lot of things had to fall into place for us, and they did, so that was really exciting.”
During the season, La Forge also swung trades for forward Colton Dach, who had gotten injured in the World Junior Championship but was expected to return before the end of the season, and star defenseman Nolan Allan. After all these deals had been done, La Forge knew his group—which now featured 10 forwards that could play in the top six—had perhaps even more depth than what he had seen from Edmonton the year prior.
“With Lambert, Guenther and Dach, we brought in an entire top line,” said La Forge. “And they didn’t play together, but they were three guys that were first-line players.”
Pro-caliber players join the mix
Lambert and his blazing speed came to the T-Birds after turning heads at Winnipeg Jets training camp and playing 14 games with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. Prokop—one of the keys to Edmonton’s success in 2021-22—had played for the ECHL’s Norfolk Admirals to start the season.
The jewel in the crown, though, was Guenther. The No. 9 overall pick by the Arizona Coyotes in 2021 racked up 91 points in 59 games for the Oil Kings last season, then made Arizona’s NHL roster out of training camp.
La Forge had his eye on Guenther at the beginning of the season, in case any indicators popped up that he might be headed back to the WHL. It is common for star WHL players to play nine games in the NHL, then get sent back before a team burns the first year of the player’s entry-level contract. Guenther was proving he belonged in the NHL, though, so the Coyotes kept him around.
But there is a second 40-game marker that accelerates a player’s path to unrestricted free agency. La Forge had no firsthand knowledge of what the plan was with Guenther, but he had heard rumblings that maybe the Coyotes didn’t want to hit that 40-game threshold. So he pulled the trigger on the conditional deal with the Oil Kings, just in case. Sure enough, after 39 games and 15 points in the NHL, Guenther joined the Thunderbirds, primed to make a run at the Memorial Cup.
WHL Champions, one game short of the Memorial Cup
The end of the junior hockey season is always interesting. Teams battle through four rounds of playoffs within their own league, and then the winners go on to a rapid-fire round-robin tournament to try to earn the title for all of Canada. Winning the WHL then coming up one game short of the Memorial Cup leaves a bittersweet taste.
“Obviously, we wanted to get one more win,” said La Forge. “That’s the goal at the start of every year is to win the Memorial Cup, but to get there, you have to accomplish all the things we did in advance of that. So I’m still really proud of everything we accomplished, but there’s still one more piece we want to go get eventually.”
While La Forge is proud of the many achievements, he isn’t satisfied with the work his club did this season. He said after they lost the final game to Quebec on a Sunday, he and his staff went back to work planning for the future that Monday.
The Thunderbirds will lose a lot of outstanding players before next season, as Prokop, Guenther, Allan, Dach, Milic, Ciona, Jared Davidson, Kyle Crnkovic, and others will all move on to the next stages of their respective careers. But that’s junior hockey. It’s a developmental league that continues to cycle players through to help them get to the next level.
La Forge still has confidence that his team can be competitive next season, with players like Korchinski, Gustafson, Gracyn Sawchyn, and Scott Ratzlaff returning. He also has high hopes for up-and-comers like Coster Dunn and Simon Lovsin.
“They’re going to be the next group that carries us,” La Forge said.