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Rookie defenseman Tyrel Bauer has flourished for Thunderbirds in trial by fire

Seattle defenseman Tyrel Bauer hammers Spokane's Jack Finley during a recent WHL game (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

It was early in the third period of the Thunderbirds game against Spokane Tuesday when Chiefs center Jack Finley tried to skate the puck into the Seattle zone. He was met there by Thunderbirds’ rookie defenseman Tyrel Bauer, who tagged Finley with a shoulder to the chest. The Spokane player fell in a heap and was whistled for being off sides.

That kind of play from Bauer, who is still just 16-years-old, is becoming par for the course. The 2017 second-round draft pick has appeared in all 18 games for Seattle this year and impressed while playing a tough position.

He plays with a physical edge and a calmness that is not the norm for a player of his age and with his limited experience.

“It’s been cool,” Bauer says of his rookie season so far. “Obviously a lot different than what I’m used to. Adjusting to this league has been different but the guys have been great and teaching me along the way.”

With the departures last year of Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand, the Thunderbirds knew they would have a younger defensive corps this season. It got younger when Jarret Tyszka was hurt in the preseason, an injury that has caused him to miss the entire season to date.

That meant more was going to be asked of and expected of a guy like Bauer. With just two WHL games under his belt coming into the season, he’s had to learn how to play defense at a high level, on the fly.

Bauer hasn’t been immune to mistakes that rookie defenseman are prone to make. However, his confidence has not been shaken and he’s learned from any miscues that occur.

“At the end the day we’re here to do a job,” he says. “One mistake, everybody is going to make them. We have to be professionals, we have to do our jobs. I’m here to play hockey, mistakes are going to happen, and you have to learn from them and go forward.”

Bauer is an articulate guy and standing at 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds its easy to forget that he is only 16-years-old. Other players in the league have overlooked that as well. He’s been challenged by older opponents and has yet to back down.

He never seems rattled.

“My game has always been kind of a shut-down d-man who takes pride in the d-zone and gets pucks out of his end and will contribute offensively when he sees a chance,” Bauer adds. “Maybe on the blue line I’ll jump up every now and again, but I take pride in my d-zone and do that you have to be focused and calm.”

That focus has resulted in Bauer getting a good deal of time on the penalty kill for Seattle.

Head coach Matt O’Dette has not hesitated to throw Bauer on the ice in big situations. Just a couple of weeks ago against the Vancouver Giants, Bauer was on the ice for the majority of a Giants’ five-on-three power play in the third period.

Seattle was clinging to a lead and Bauer helped the Thunderbirds survive to get a win, despite being gassed by the time the penalties had expired. Just one more learning experience for the rookie.

“It was fun, it’s always fun,” Bauer says of that game. “We got thrown in the fire a little bit, under siege a little bit. They kept tapping me and I kept going so I’ll step up to that occasion any day.”

Usually, WHL teams prefer not to throw 16-year-old defenseman to the fire.

It’s a position that is hard to play and made even harder going against older players, many dripping with NHL-level skill. The Thunderbirds have had to rely on younger guys like Bauer this year because the situation on the blue line. It’s something that Seattle has seen before.

In the 2011-2012 season the Thunderbirds threw then rookie defensemen Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf on the ice all season long. There were growing pains as the Thunderbirds gave up a lot of goals and the two 16-year-olds certainly took their lumps. However, both of those guys gained from that experience and Theodore landed in the NHL while Hauf became a key player in Seattle’s Western Conference Championship team just a few seasons later.

“It’s helped me be able to learn those concepts and maybe get more ice time than a regular 16 -year -old coming in,” Bauer says of his trial by fire. “Having these injuries happen has made me learn how to work out all those kinks so that when things get back to normal, I’ll know the systems more.”

Bauer grew up in Chochrane, Alberta, just about 40-minutes from Calgary.

Normally that’s Flames country, but Bauer says he grew up, thanks to his father’s influence, as a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. He likes to watch Montreal defenseman Shea Weber and respects his game as it’s the type of game he wants to play. It’s tough, physical, well rounded and Weber earns respect on and off the ice.

After being drafted by Seattle in 2017 Bauer had options.

He could sign and come play with the Thunderbirds or he could have chosen the college route. He looked at both before landing in the WHL with Seattle.

“I just had to look at what was best for me,” Bauer says of the decision. “I’m a good student but at the same time we thought ‘could I be ready to play professional hockey by age 20’? That’s kind of what our final say was. We looked at the WHL schooling and how they take a look at it. We were satisfied with the way they go about that and figured that I have some time, but I also have a back-up plan.”

Bauer is not eligible for the NHL Draft until June of 2020. With the way his career has started, it is a safe bet that his name will be on all the lists in the upcoming summer as scouts start to put together their rankings.

Until that time, he’ll continue to play his game for the Thunderbirds this year. It’s a game that has been impressive to the point that even when Seattle is healthy on defense, Bauer’s minutes may just stay right where they’ve been.