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Keegan Kolesar’s season took him from Vegas to Chicago and back again

Former Seattle Thunderbirds star Keegan Kolesar celebrates a goal with the Chicago Wolves (Wolves photo)

It was just about a year ago when Keegan Kolesar was settled into a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio. The former Thunderbirds star was preparing to hit the ice for a rookie summer camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets – the team that had drafted him in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Then the phone rang. When he answered, Kolesar was informed that he had been traded to the upstart Vegas Golden Knights and he began to repack his belongings. Before he knew it, he was on a plane headed to the desert in what would become a whirlwind season.

Kolesar and his fellow Vegas prospects would be among the first to wear the Golden Knights colors. With a lot of unknowns, Kolesar would go on to play with the team through the preseason, even getting into some exhibition games.

“I didn’t play in any preseason home games,” Kolesar said. “They were all on the road since the arena was still being finished. We didn’t know what to expect, we were still wondering what was going to happen and how the city would react to hockey.”

After preseason, Kolesar would be sent to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League to begin his professional career.

Chicago was splitting its affiliation between Vegas and the St. Louis Blues which meant the roster was pretty crowded. As a rookie, Kolesar found himself quickly sent down to the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards, in order to be able to find consistent playing time.

“It’s tough,” he said of being sent down. “Things didn’t go as I wanted to at first. That’s hockey, things don’t always go the way you want them to. Everybody has bad things, or adversity, that happens and you’re stronger for it.”

He would play in 20 games for Quad City and instead of letting the demotion sink him, he played well. Kolesar would score his first professional goal — potting nine total — along with 16 points in his brief ECHL stint.

That got him sent back to the Wolves and the AHL, where he would stay for the rest of the season. Moving from the junior ranks to the pros can be an adjustment, both on and off the ice, and Kolesar had to learn the ropes quickly.

“You’re on your own,” he said. “You have to show up to play every day. You’re not just playing for scholarship money, you’re playing for real money. It’s a job now so you don’t go half-in. You want to constantly work on your game and become a better player.”

He got into 44 games with the Wolves and scored five more goals, adding another in Chicago’s first-round playoff series with the Rockford Ice Hogs.

Kolesar , who led the WHL in playoff scoring last season, is part of the group of Thunderbirds that will forever be fan favorites for winning the first league title in franchise history. Playing in the AHL’s Central Division, he didn’t get to play against any of his former teammates this past year.

“I was hoping to play against (Alexander) True but when we went to California that was the one team that we didn’t play,” he said. “Hopefully I get to play against some of those guys next year.  But, I saw (Mathew) Barzal and (Ethan) Bear up and doing their thing, it’s great to see.”

While he didn’t get to see those guys on the ice, Kolesar added that the former Thunderbirds all still keep in touch and check in on each other during the season.

After Chicago was eliminated in the playoffs, Kolesar was among a group of Vegas prospects who were recalled to the NHL for the Golden Knights playoff push. It was a chance for the young players to practice with the big club, get a taste of the NHL lifestyle, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“Nice to be a part of it and see the city, see how huge hockey is now in Vegas,” Kolesar said of the experience. “We were kind of the outside looking in, we let them do their thing and not distract. They’re playing for the Stanley Cup. Anytime you step into an NHL arena or team you get those goosebumps. It’s a good stepping stone for my career.”

Kolesar is now back in his home of Winnipeg, where he says the summers are second to none, as he’ll begin to prepare for next season. He most likely will start in Chicago again as he continues to work towards the ultimate goal of making the NHL for good.

While he moves forward in his hockey career, he says that he still keeps tabs on the Thunderbirds and how they’re faring.

“You always follow,” he said. “I was excited to see them make the playoffs and give Everett a good run. It’s nice to see them have success.”

By the time the NHL arrives in Seattle there is a good chance that Kolesar will be in the league. He says that coming into Seattle to play an NHL game will be a special moment for him and he’s positive that the league will be a success.

“We had a great fan base and American fans are whole different beast,” he said of Seattle hockey fans. “They love physical hockey, you can ask anyone who went to games. We were just outside the city and if hockey can flourish in Kent then no doubt it can in downtown Seattle.”