WINDSOR, Ontario – The spectacular season of the Seattle Thunderbirds came to an end on a Tuesday evening in the WFCU Centre in Windsor.
The Thunderbirds were eliminated from the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup after a 7-0 blow out at the hands of the Saint John Sea Dogs. It was the 95th game the Thunderbirds had played this season, and it turned to be the last.
Seattle looked like they had found their footing but a five-minute stretch in the second period where Saint John struck for five quick goals essentially ended the year.
“It felt fairly good until they scored the second goal,” Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We were getting shots and playing up and down hockey but the wheel’s fell off quickly when they scored that second goal.”
It also ends the junior careers of five of the team’s key players for not just this season, but the last four seasons. Mathew Barzal, Scott Eansor, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear saw their last action in a Seattle sweater.
“They’ve grown up with me as a coach and we’ve had our battles and ups and downs,” Konowalchuk said. “That’s all part of it, learning to grow up to be good young men and they’re going away like professional hockey players. I have a ton of respect for all of them for how hard they worked for the players, for themselves and the coaching staff and organization. I’ll miss those guys and I hope all our young guys learned from them and how to carry themselves.”
While there is definitely disappointment in what happened this week, it was the best year, and best two-year run in the franchise history.
“It’s obviously sad right now but I think we did a lot of good things for ourselves this year,” an emotional Kolesar said. “I think we raised the bar for the next group of guys. Last year we lost and this year we reached the next step.”
After the loss, it was an emotional scene outside the Seattle dressing room. Despite the overwhelming success of the season, the finality of three straight losses in the Memorial Cup had its affect.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that the season is done yet,” Barzal said. “It all happened so fast. I’m sure in a day or two we’ll look back on it and its pretty impressive. I learned a lot about myself, a lot about guys in that room and I’d bring them in the fox hole every time.”
Saint John opened the scoring early in the second period after its forecheck kept the Thunderbirds from being able to clear the puck. Joe Veleno picked it up in the high slot and scored on a wrist shot that got past Carl Stankowski’s glove side.
After that goal, the Thunderbirds started to tilt the ice and at one point were out-shooting the Sea Dogs 20-10.
Unfortunately for Seattle, things changed in a hurry.
The Sea Dogs would double their lead with just under six minutes left when, during a delayed penalty call, they got the Seattle defense scrambling and freed up room for Chase Stewart to score.
Just 15 seconds later, Mathieu Joseph was given too much room on the wing and easily scored with a wrist shot. Just like that, Seattle was in a hole that it wouldn’t be able to claw out of.
“It just felt like they were done mentally,” Konowalchuk said. “They had a couple tough series and one thing about this team, we go down 2-0 today, usually we come right back, we have all year. And we have fight, without question.
“We didn’t have that today. To me, we just didn’t have enough mentally. They’re all good character kids. It’s not that they didn’t work hard, there’s just no juice left mentally to keep fighting and pushing.”
That hole became a chasm 38 seconds later when Saint John would make it 4-0 when Spencer Smallman banged home a backhand from in close. For the second straight game Konowalchuk would pull Stankowski in favor of Rylan Toth after the rookie gave up four goals on 14 shots.
The Sea Dogs would keep pouring it on and would get it to 6-0 on goals by Cole Reginato and Bokondji Imama. When the horn finally sounded, Saint John had taken 10 of the periods last 11 shots on goal over a five-minute flurry that saw them score five times.
Saint John added a seventh goal as Veleno scored his second early in the third period and the Sea Dogs knew that they had advanced to the tournament’s semi-final.
For Seattle, it will pack up and head back home, not satisfied with what happened during the week. Konowalchuk hoped that his guys would take the disappointment along with the understanding of how special this season was.
“I think as people, as young men, they can reflect on both,” Konowalchuk said. “Getting kicked in the butt, that’s part of life and enjoying success before is part of life. They’ve had a roller coaster and its part of it. I do want them to understand the feeling they have right now but also, as the night goes on in the next day or two, reflect more on the success they had this year.”
• Barzal ends his Seattle career as one of the best players in the franchise’s 40-year history. He ended up sixth in points and third in assists all-time for Seattle. He twice made Team Canada and played in back-to-back World Juniors, winning silver this past winner. Barzal was selected 16th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2015 NHL Draft and made his NHL debut this past fall against the Washington Capitals.
“Honestly, sitting around the dressing room, you look at all your buddies and been here with some of them for four years now and you sit around and get flash backs to some of the good times and some of the bad times you just laugh at,” Barzal said, reflecting on his Seattle career. “It just all comes full circle. I have a lot of good memories of when I was 16 and being a rookie and getting picked on, those were some of the best times I’ve ever had. The last four years are swinging in my brain right now.”
• Gropp will leave Seattle after potting 117 goals on 254 points in 258 games with the T-Birds. His speed and quick wrist shot became staples in the T-Bird arsenal over his career. He was selected in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers.
• Eansor has become one of the most popular players amongst the Seattle fan base. While in Seattle he has developed into one of the best shut-down centers in the WHL. He was a member of Team USA in the 2016 World Junior Championships and part of their bronze medal winning performance.
“Me, Barzy, I mean the list goes on, all the way to Carl,” Eansor said fighting through tears. “It’s been an amazing four years and four of the best years of my life. Pretty hard to say goodbye… we broke history in Seattle and its something to be proud about. None of the guys should hang their heads but its something you’ll never forget.”
• Bear won the WHL Defenseman of the Year award this spring after a spectacular 28 goal-70 point season. He winds up as the top goal-scoring defenseman in club history, passing his former teammate, Shea Theodore. He was drafted in the third-round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
“After the loss I was having flash backs from when I was 16 until now,” Bear said. “I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished in Seattle and what we accomplished as a team. We battled pretty hard throughout the season with injuries and having guys step up at key times to get to this spot. I’m pretty proud of everybody.”
• Kolesar turned into the league’s premier power forward while with the Thunderbirds. He could hit with the best of them but also showed that had the hands and skill to pot 77 goals over his four-year stint in Seattle. Kolesar was selected in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’s something special,” Bear said. “It’s something I’ll always remember in my life and fortunate enough to go through this journey with a lot of guys. Bearsy, Barzy, Groppy and Scotty, its been a great journey with them.”