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Thunderbirds exit interview with the versatile Donovan Neuls

Donovan Neuls only missed five games during his four-year Thunderbirds career (Brian Liesse/ T-Birds)

Donovan Neuls is listed as a center on the Seattle Thunderbirds roster but to say he was just a center would be cutting his true contributions to the team short.

The 20-year-old did play center, although had never done so before last season, but he also played on the wing, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. There was even one game early in the season where some injuries forced him to play a few shifts on defense.

Whatever the team needed, Neuls would step up and do it.

He got hurt in Game 4 of the Thunderbirds first-round series against Everett and his status for the following night was uncertain. If you knew Neuls then you knew that he was going to play.

“I would have had to be carried off on a stretcher to not play,” Neuls says.

He would play in Game 5 in what would end up being his last game in the WHL and as a Thunderbird.

A former eighth-round Bantam pick, Neuls ends his Seattle career playing in a combined 381 regular and post-season games. Not bad for a late round pick who wasn’t sure if he’d ever make the roster.

“I remember my first camp when I was 15, I was really nervous, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it for a few years,” Neuls says. “I don’t think I made the inter-squad game when I was 16 but my 17-year-old year, I had a feeling I might make it.”

Neuls made it and over his four-year career scored 59 regular season goals and was one of the most durable players on the team. In his four years, he played in all but five out of the team’s 288 scheduled regular season contests.

The always humble Neuls, who is referred to as ‘Donnie’ by his teammates, was a part of perhaps the club’s greatest draft class in 2012. While he was at the end of the draft, it was the same class that brought in Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, and Ethan Bear.

“That draft, we did pretty good,” Neuls says. “With Barzy, Bearsy and Keegs and whoever else was in that draft class. It was a really good year for us and my career was pretty special. To go to the finals twice and win in Regina, near my home town, was special and something I’ll always remember.”

Neuls hails from the small town of Grenfell, Sask. and was a big part of that win in Regina.

He scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 1 and had a remarkable playoff run in 2017. He scored five times while adding five assists in the 18 games last spring. With injuries to Barzal and Ryan Gropp early in the post season, Neuls jumped to the top line and was a big contributor.

That draft class is the group that helped turn the accesso ShoWare Center into an intimidating place to play and has grown a loyal fan base. Neuls became one of the fan favorites and says he’s glad that he never had to play there as a visitor.

“The fans have been awesome the four years I’ve been here,” he adds. “I can’t thank them enough either. Playing in the ShoWare, I’ve heard, is one of the toughest places to play in the U.S. Division, so a lot of that goes to them, yelling and screaming all game.”

As his junior career is now over, Neuls is still weighing his hockey-playing options moving forward.

One thing he does know is that he’ll be playing in the outfield for the Grenfell Gems, something he’s done that past few summers. He had played centerfield, but this year might play in left as he was filling in for an injured guy last summer. Again, doing whatever he can to help the club.

The Thunderbirds will miss Neuls next season as he was the type of ‘glue’ player that every winning team needs, a guy who is versatile and can contribute in several different scenarios. He will always be linked to the greatest run in the franchise history and it’s hard to believe that his four years have now come and past.

“It flies by,” Neuls says. “You never know until you’re 20 I guess, how fast four years go by. I’m glad I got to spend it here in Seattle. It’s been awesome. I’ve met a lot of people and a lot of friendships that will last forever.”