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Donovan Neuls has come a long way from Grenfell to Seattle

Donovan Neuls does a little of everything for the Thunderbirds (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT — The City of Grenfell, Saskatchewan is a long way away from the Kent-Seattle area. Located about 500 miles from the nearest big city – Calgary – the town has a slogan of ‘Grenfell’s got it’. The city doesn’t have many people, but it is where the Seattle Thunderbirds got one of their key players.

Donovan Neuls is that player and since joining the Thunderbirds full time in 2014, his versatility has been valuable to the club’s success. He can do a little bit of everything, and do it well, and he has become one of Seattle’s unsung players.

He has potted 35 goals in this two-plus seasons with the team, but his value can’t be measured by goals and assists alone.

When needed, he’ll do whatever the team asks from him.

“I just do whatever Steve (Konowalchuk) says,” Neuls said after Tuesday’s win. “If he needs me to play center, I’ll play center. If he needs me on the wing, I’ll play wing. It’s his decision and I just go out and play as hard as I can.”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a player who plays harder night in and night out then Neuls. This season, he has moved up and down the lineup, moved from the wing to center the club’s second line, taken on opponent’s top lines, killed penalties and chipped in offensively.

He scored a big goal two weeks ago to spark a comeback in Portland. It was a highlight-reel worthy goal that saw him put the puck between a defenseman’s legs, retrieve it and then score. That same night he logged heavy minutes chasing down some of Portland’s speedy forwards.

Neuls has been a perfect fit for the style that the head coach Konowalchuk wants to play, but his spot on the team wasn’t always a certainty.

In 2012, he was playing for the Melville Millionaires and he had a pretty good season. His 57 points in 24 games got him some attention from WHL scouts, but he wasn’t one of the top prospects.  Neuls was passed over for seven rounds of the WHL’s Bantam Draft before finally, in the eighth round, with pick 157, he heard Seattle call his name.

Some guys might be disappointed to not go higher, but Neuls sounds like he took it all in stride.

“Me and my family and a couple of buddies stayed home from school and watched it,” Neuls said about his draft day. “It was a great feeling to hear my name get called, it was just a good feeling.”

He says that he had heard very little from Seattle’s scouts, other than a quick check in to see that if they did select him, was he interested in coming all the way to Kent. He was and the T-Birds took him.

Neuls was excited to get selected, and even more so when he saw who else Seattle had taken that year.

“When I saw that Ethan (Bear) got drafted, and he lived just down the road from me, I was pretty excited,” Neuls said.

Coming from a small town in Saskatchewan to the Puget Sound area can be a pretty big culture shock. So can going from playing hockey in Bantam against players your age to playing against WHL players who are older.

Neuls remembers that first training camp in the fall of 2012.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I was a little scared to be honest but was a great feeling to get my feet wet.”

Not only did he get his feet wet with the hockey, he and his mother stayed an extra day to check out the city and tour around Seattle.

When he made the squad two years later, he had to get used to living in a much larger community than he had grown up in.

“Grenfell’s only 1,000 people, so just seeing Kent, let alone Seattle, was a big difference,” he said. “It’s a lot different going home in the summer time in Grenfell. You don’t have as much traffic, or anything to do I guess.”

Now in his third season with Seattle and in the WHL, he says if he could give his 15-year-old a piece of advice, it would be to smell the roses some.

“Just enjoy it because it flies by,” he said. “I’ve only been here two years, this is my third, and man does it fly by. I’ll be 20 already next year and it’s amazing.”

While there is still some business to attend to this year, Neuls should be one of the players in the mix to take up one of Seattle’s 20-year-old slots next year. With what he brings each night, his experience and the example he sets for the younger players, he might be considered a lock to return.

“I would love to come back here and play,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s a great community and organization and it would be great to keep playing here.”

With five games left in the current regular season, Neuls has tied his career high for goals with 14 and has a chance to set a new career mark for points. Talking to him however, you get the sense that those numbers are secondary to doing whatever he can to help the team win.

If that means blocking shots or focusing more on stopping the opponent than he does scoring, he will.

The Thunderbirds have managed to keep winning despite a rash of injuries to key players in the second half of the season. One of the reasons that they have survived is because of players like Nuels, who have stepped up and contributed in ways that don’t always show up on the score sheet.

Seattle is hoping to get healthy in time for another deep playoff run and Neuls says there could be a positive to how the team has handled the injury situation.

“I think it shows that if we do suffer injuries, we can win even while short-staffed,” he said. “If we do get guys like (Scott) Eansor back it will be a huge boost. If everyone plays the way they are and then we get his tenaciousness, speed and all around play, it will just make us even better.”

Heading into the second to last weekend of the regular season, the T-Birds trail Everett by one point for the U.S. Division lead and have a big game with the Silvertips Friday night at the ShoWare Center. If they are able to win that game and ultimately the division, it will be because of the contributions from players like Donovan Neuls. The Finals run from last year is still fresh in Neuls’ mind and something he says he will remember fondly when his playing days are done.

He also wants a repeat, but with a different ending.

“Going to the finals last year was ridiculous,” he said. “Chartering a flight to Brandon, which is close to my hometown, and then having all the support from my community back there was incredible. I enjoyed every minute of it. Hopefully we can do it again this year, except win it all.”