After 72 regular-season games and 20 postseason matchups, the Seattle Thunderbirds have won their first WHL Championship.
It was a title that was 40 seasons in the making.
As Alexander True lifted a shot over Regina goalie Tyler Brown and into the net 12:46 into the overtime period of Sunday’s Game 6, that 40-year journey was over. As the Thunderbirds’ bench emptied onto the Brandt Center ice to mob True, sticks, helmets and gloves thrown in every direction, it felt like it wasn’t just this version of the Thunderbirds celebrating in that corner.
This win was for the players that came before, over these last 40 seasons.
It was for Glen Goodall, Victor Gervais, Danny Lorenz, Patrick Marleau, Thomas Hickey and Calvin Pickard. All former Thunderbirds players had to smiling at that moment, wherever they were watching from.
This T-Birds team won Game 6 the same way that they have won all season long. They faced adversity and fought through it.
Down two goals with just under seven minutes left in the game, it looked like an anything-goes Game 7 was in the offering. But then Ryan Gropp scored a goal, and 28 seconds later Keegan Kolesar tied it for Seattle.
That’s how they’ve played all year. Never give up, never panic, keep playing.
The team didn’t give up at the start of the season when Kolesar was hurt, Mathew Barzal was in the NHL and Gropp was in the AHL.
They didn’t give up when Scott Eansor got hurt in early January and missed nearly the entire second half of the season. They didn’t give up when Barzal and True missed time in January due to the World Junior Championships.
They fought through injuries to Mathew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka and Nolan Volcan.
At the end of the year, they lost Barzal for a month due to illness and then their starting goalie, Rylan Toth, to injury. They relied on a rookie goalie in his 16-year-old season who had barley sniffed the start of his junior career.
At any of those points you would have understood it if they threw the towel into the ring. They had a built-in excuse. Nobody would blame them.
It turns out, that’s not the kind of team head coach Steve Konowalchuk and general manager Russ Farwell have built. Their team was a perfect blend of skill, grit and most importantly, heart. Farwell tweaked the roster that his scouts put together. It started with former head scout Colin Alexander to the current man, Cal Filson. They found these players, they knew the kind of character that the team needed.
Konowalchuk got his players to believe in themselves, believe that if they just worried about the next shift, it didn’t matter what the score was or who was missing from the lineup.
All year long, the coach would repeat the phrase “we just kept playing” in postgame comments after each seemingly impossible win.
They just kept playing.
They played right through the first two rounds of the playoffs, not losing once it eight games. They kept playing when they lost Ethan Bear after Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. They kept playing without Toth and behind a new star being born in goalie Carl Stankowski.
Winning this trophy and hoisting the Ed Chynoeth Cup for the first time had to feel sweet to Konowalchuk. As a player, he came close. His Washington Capitals squad lost the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 and never got back. Last year he felt defeat as a head coach as the T-Birds lost in the WHL Finals.
While Sunday’s win probably isn’t as great as winning the Stanley Cup, it must come pretty close to the same feeling, the same elation.
Konowalchuk and his team will celebrate this win over the next few days but they all know that the journey isn’t over. They will be back in action on Saturday afternoon as they face the Ontario Hockey League Champions in the first game of the 2017 Memorial Cup in Windsor, Ontario.
There’s time enough to worry about that game. For now, it’s all about celebrating a championship.
At this past fall’s training camp, the team all wore T-shirts that read “Good enough is not good enough” on the backs of them. It was referencing last year’s bitter loss to Brandon in the finals and motivation to take that one extra step.
On Sunday night, it turns out that being good enough was perfect.