By Tim Pigulski
After signing just hours ago, the Mathew Barzal story is ready to be written.
In a move that has the potential to change the face of Seattle hockey, the Burnaby Winter Club and Vancouver NE Chiefs product sat at a table with his agent and Thunderbirds staff, waiting for WHL commissioner Ron Robison to make what was described as a “special announcement” – and special it was for everyone involved.
“I had a bit of an idea that was going to happen,” said the well-spoken 15-year-old, who already appears prepared for life as a celebrity. “But being followed by Seth Jones, Nic Petan, and Brendan Leipsic was an honor. It’s cool to be here and hopefully next year I’ll be here again.”
While it’s a huge step for Barzal in his path to professional stardom, it’s no secret that the Thunderbirds were in also in hot pursuit of the highly coveted prospect.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking,” said Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell. “Matt and his dad told us they wanted to go slow and wait things out, but they never said they didn’t want to play here. But that’s part of the process – it’s why we have a 15-year-old draft and give the family a chance to assess the organization and it’s up to us to convince them that we have a good place developmentally that they would want to go.”
Following the fanfare, the soon-to-be rookie is excited to be able to focus his attention once again on hockey and not on the off-the-ice drama that comes with being such a highly touted prospect. It wasn’t until about last weekend that the high-scoring center made the final decision that he wanted to play for the Thunderbirds and in the WHL, but wanted to make sure he gave every potential route a fair shake.
“I got asked a lot what I was going to do, so I’m glad that question is over,” Barzal said with a laugh. “I’m really looking forward to next season. It wasn’t too long after my [Midget] season that me and my parents really started sitting down and looking at which route was best for me. I’m very confident that’s the WHL. We probably didn’t decide until last weekend, but my parents are fully on board now and I can’t wait to join the ‘Birds and contribute to a winning season.”
As has been proven many times in the past, it’s never a sure bet that a player will sign until his name is actually on the contract.
Farwell, despite feeling that things were headed in a positive direction, wasn’t able to breathe easy until Wednesday morning when Barzal arrived in Calgary with his agent, J.P. Barry, to give his official confirmation. While grumblings began to surface over the last few days that Barzal was preparing to sign, it wasn’t a sure thing until midday Wednesday.
“To be honest, you’re never comfortable until you have it completed,” said Farwell, who will be guiding the Thunderbirds through Thursday’s 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, where the team holds three of the top 30 overall picks. “But on our last trip to Vancouver, I met with Mike (Barzal, Matt’s dad) and he said they were going to look at it at the end of the season, but that they were leaning in our direction. Since February we’ve been getting positive feedback and Matt came down for the playoff game against Kelowna and was real excited there. We’ve known he was looking our way, but it’s not done until it’s done.”
The game that Farwell describes may have been the most exciting of the Thunderbirds’ season. In that contest, a Game 3 overtime victory over the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets that saw the T-Birds take a 3-0 lead in the series on an Evan Wardley game-winning goal, the ShoWare Center radiated the energy and excitement that Barzal knew he wanted to be a part of.
But it wasn’t just the game itself that made playing in Seattle an even bigger attraction.
“It was an awesome game. The fans were wild and they pulled out a win.” Barzal continued, “I also got to see a lot of the guys there and they’re a great group of people. They made me feel welcome right from training camp and never held anything against me even though I hadn’t signed. I’m looking forward to training camp again and meeting a lot of new guys and making some new friends.”
When he does join the T-Birds full-time, Barzal should be surrounded by a roster featuring a number of NHL draft choices. As many as seven players could be drafted by professional clubs this offseason, in addition to those who have already been chosen.
“They have a great young defense core that I’m looking forward to playing with and some high-end forwards up front with Delnov, Lipsbergs, Troock, and some other guys,” he said. “I think I’ll fit in well next year and with Steve [Konowalchuk] being the coach I should learn a lot.”
While he remains modest, Barzal has high aspirations for himself as well, made obvious by the comparisons he makes between himself and a certain very talented WHL player and Seattle rival.
“I see myself as sort of like Nic Petan, a guy who isn’t the biggest out there but uses his speed and his skill and makes the plays that the normal player can’t see,” he said. “He’s a great player and if I can have as good of a season as he did this year and in my 17-year-old year that would be awesome.”
Petan, of course, tied for the league lead in points with teammate Brendan Leipsic. Both Petan and Leipsic had 120 points over the course of the regular season, a total that hasn’t been met by a Thunderbirds player since Patrick Marleau did so during the 1996-97 campaign.
Even for top-tier prospects such as Barzal, the transition to Major Junior hockey isn’t an easy one. Playing against players four years older than him, and often quite a bit taller and heavier, over a much longer season provides a challenge that requires more than a small amount of preparation.
“I’ve got good vision and I’m a good skater, but I know that I need to work on my defensive zone coverage,” Barzal said. “Playing for Steve, I know that I’ll have to be responsible in my own end if I want ice time.”
With his offensive skills already well-established, hearing the playmaking center’s desire to round out his game demonstrates a deeper understanding of his responsibilities than most have at his age. Farwell agrees, knowing that Barzal has the work ethic to ensure he becomes a complete player.
“He’s so unselfish and plays at such a level that he’s going to make everyone on the team better,” Farwell said. “This kind of guy permeates the roster and gets other guys thinking about what they can do themselves. I’m not worried about Matt at all. If you watch the successful teams, everyone back checks. Last season he was playing every second shift and you just can’t play that way when you’re playing so much. I know Steve has expectations for everyone on the team and Matt wants to be successful, so I think they’ll get it together pretty quick. It’s great to hear him talk that way and he’s a smart player, so I know he’ll pick it up quickly.”
The idea that Barzal can be a sort of once-in-a-generation player doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch, as he set the single-season record for assists in his lone Midget season, playing for the Vancouver NE Chiefs of the British Columbia Major Midget League.
“My parents keep me well-grounded,” said Barzal, speaking about the high expectations that have been placed on him despite never having suited up for a regular season game in the WHL. “I don’t take it for granted and I come to work every day. It’s an honor to receive that praise and I’m very thankful for it, but after that, I have to work.
Looking forward, Barzal’s impact will likely reach much farther than himself. He’s hoping that his commitment will entice other players who are on the fence to give their pledge to Seattle, and Farwell is hoping for the same.
“I hope so,” Barzal said when asked about how his signing might impact other prospects who are undecided. “It’s ultimately their decision how they want to pursue their hockey careers, but I hope that they realize that the Thunderbirds are going to be a good team the next few years and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”
While Farwell agrees, he knows there is still work to be done before Seattle can be listed among the league’s prestigious playing destinations.
“I think it helps, but we have to produce. We have to raise our overall performance and our expectations as a team. We need to take that next step as an organization and that’s what our plans are. If we do that, then we can make it a great spot to play, but it goes one step at a time and we have to prove it. Matt knows that, and he’s excited about coming in and playing a part in that transformation. He’s got real plans for his career as a player and it’s going to go hand-in-hand with what we want to do as an organization. In that way, it will be a great fit.”
While Barzal’s signing is only the first significant move of the offseason, it’s certainly a great start for a team that has been craving someone with his otherworldly potential. Pay close attention, as the ripple effect that he has could make for an exciting summer. Thursday is the draft, when we may see the first of Barzal’s effect on the rest of the roster.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.