It was New Year’s Eve in Portland and Austin Strand found himself in a strange place.
Just over 24 hours after the Calgary native was traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds he found himself on the ice, warming up with his new teammates. Strand had made the journey from Red Deer where he was playing defense for the Rebels but his gear did not.
His warm up session was more than just getting loose, it was seeing if he could play with borrowed equipment.
“It was weird,” Strand said last week. “Different skates and not a single piece of equipment was my own. Different curve to the stick even and I was using Wyatt Bear’s skates. It was lucky that they fit me.”
Equipped with strange gear, Strand gave it a go and ended up playing a lot of minutes. Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk played him in all situations and late in the game, nursing a one-goal lead, Strand found himself on the T-Birds’ penalty kill unit.
Seattle hung on to win that game after coming back in the third period. Strand was a big part of it as his tenure with the T-Birds got off to a good start.
The T-Birds acquired Strand in a deal that sent Brandon Schuldhaus to Red Deer and he gives Seattle a great deal of experience. The 19-year-old has played in 166 WHL games and got a look with the Calgary Flames in their summer development camp.
Just prior to picking up Strand the T-Birds added Aaron Hyman from the Calgary Hitmen to further bolster their blue line. Strand and Hyman knew each other before becoming teammates, both working out together in the offseason back in Calgary.
Hyman wasn’t the only friend that Strand was reunited with. He had played the last two seasons with Seattle goalie Rylan Toth back in Red Deer. They were teammates and good friends.
“We kept in touch ever since he got traded,” Strand said. “I had told him I kind of wanted to get traded somewhere and we were talking about how crazy it would be if I came here. It’s nice to have someone I know on the team.”
Strand says that he kind of had an inkling that a trade was coming. After selling the farm for their Memorial Cup run last season, the Rebels were in a rebuild mode. This year they’ve made a number of deals, all of them sending older players away for younger players or draft picks.
Getting traded is never easy, but with the rebuild, Strand was looking forward to getting a chance to play more meaningful hockey.
“I kind of saw it coming,” he said. “It couldn’t have been any better coming here with such a good team and looking to have another long playoff run. I want to do as much as I can to help and be a good shut down d-man here.”
A shut down defenseman is what the T-Birds had been looking to add. Last year, they had Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith to provide big minutes and physical hockey. With those two graduating Seattle has missed that physical presence.
Standing at 6-foot-3 inches tall and over 200 pounds, Strand can be that kind of player for Seattle.
“He’s a veteran guy who knows how to defend,” Konowalchuk said of his new blue-liner. “He skates and closes on people fairly quick. He gives us a physical presence back there.”
The fact that Strand handled himself well on New Year’s Eve in front of 10,000 loud Portland fans shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. He played on a Red Deer team that was in the pressure cooker all season last year. They made a deep playoff run, losing to Brandon in the Eastern Conference finals and then played in the Memorial Cup as the hosts.
He knows what playing in big games in front of loud crowds is all about and says the Memorial Cup experience taught him a lot.
“I learned to keep my temper even keel,” Strand said. “Try to stay calm and just stick to my game. Just visualize my own game and not try to think about the crowd.”
Getting traded and getting adjusted is never easy but the schedule was kind to the T-Birds and Strand. They’ve had consecutive weeks with no mid-week games which has given them a lot of practice time. Strand says that it’s helped him to learn his teammate’s names and gain some chemistry with his new defense partner, Reece Harsch.
Coming from a smaller town in Red Deer, Strand has also taken some time to see the local sights.
“I already went and checked out downtown,” he said. “I like the big city so when I heard it was Seattle I was pumped. I know it’s like ten times bigger than Calgary and when I saw the downtown it really put it into perspective how big it is, I love it.”
Strand is all smiles these days as it’s clear he’s happy with where he landed. He says he’s enjoyed the U.S. Division’s crowds and rivalries and he even is pumped for the facilities at the ShoWare Center.
“I’m really liking the U.S. Division,” he said with a grin. “They’re so loud and the first home game here couldn’t have been better with the crowd and the fans. I even like this hall way.”
So far, Seattle is happy to have him in that hall way and they have yet to lose since Strand joined the club. As the second half gets in gear this weekend in Everett, they hope that Strand can help them take aim at the Silvertips and try to win a second straight U.S. Division title.