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Rookie Kai Uchacz looks to be a big piece of Thunderbirds’ future

Seattle's 2018 first-round draft pick, Kai Uchacz, looks to be a big part of the team's future. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The goal came midway through the first period of the Thunderbirds last regular season game against the Portland Winterhawks. The puck rebounded off Portland goalie Joel Hoffer and onto the stick of Seattle rookie Kai Uchacz who promptly banged it in for the first WHL goal of his career. It tied the game at 2-2 as the Thunderbirds would go on to win the game and spoil their rivals’ chances of having home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

“It was just off the pad there,” Uchacz said of the goal during packing day last week. “It was exciting to get my first one and keep the puck with me. I’ve got it with me and I’m probably going to take in my carry on. Keeping it with me tight.”

Uchacz, who turns 16 in June, was selected by the Thunderbirds in the first round of the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft and has a promising future with the club.

With his Midget season over, he played in five games at the end of the regular season, picking up his first goal and an assist. The game experience was one thing, but he also spent close to a month practicing with the team, getting prepared for his full rookie season, next year.

“It’s been a pretty great experience,” Uchacz said. “Just learning everything for the upcoming years, next year. Getting comfortable with the guys and getting into a couple WHL games is huge.”

After an impressive training camp last fall, Uchacz returned to his home province of Alberta to play for the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Midget Hockey League. In 28 games with Okotoks he scored 16 times and recorded 31 points.

He also played for Team Alberta in the Canadian Winter Games and picked up eight more points (2g-6a) in six games. Uchacz is a big center who didn’t wilt from the pressure that comes with being a first-round WHL draft pick.

“Sometimes I was played a little harder, maybe double teamed a little bit,” he said of his season. “Some guys chirped me about it and stuff. Our team didn’t do that well, we had a little bit of adversity. Myself, I thought I played well, had a decent season.”

When the Oilers season ended he was called up to finish the year with Seattle. He played down the stretch and even made it into the lineup for Game 1 of the Thunderbirds first-round playoff series with the Vancouver Giants. He never looked out of place.

Playing against older and more experienced players, he was physical, moved the puck well, won faceoffs and came a couple of posts away from potting three goals in the last two games of the season.

Uchacz is part of an exciting draft class all looking to make their mark as rookies in the coming season. Seattle’s two second-round picks, Lucas Ciona and Connor Roulette,also got brief call ups during the season and have given the Thunderbirds reason to be excited about the future.

It’s a future that excites Uchacz as well.

“I chat with both those guys still,” Uchacz said. “High talent for both of them, Ciona is a big body and just great players for the T-birds. I think we have a really good team coming up.”

As Uchacz heads home to De Winton, Alberta, he knows that he has a big summer ahead of him.

The expectations are high and playing in the WHL at 16, which he will be doing next year, is no easy feat. He got a taste of how much stronger and faster the league is during his brief stint with the Thunderbirds. He knows that the pace in the WHL is faster and passes need to be crisper and made quicker.

He also knows that there is a lot of work to do.

“A lot of skill work, puck protection and just everything to do with learning new things,” he said about what he’s working on in the summer. “Getting to the net and skill to score more goals, ability to make more plays and set guys up. Just a lot of offensive stuff and some video work on defensive stuff.”

The Thunderbirds could feature up to four 16-year-old rookies in their forward group next year and there will certainly be some ups and downs as they navigate through their rookie years. There will be a learning curve but there will also be a lot of talent on display.

Uchacz will be in the center of it all, and after getting a brief taste of what the WHL lifestyle is like, is ready to take the next step.

“Can’t wait to get started,” he said. “The fans are awesome, just from what I’ve seen sitting out and playing in the last regular season game with Portland. My billets are awesome. Leaving home young is hard but they’ve been awesome. The facilities here are great, dressing room, work out rooms and the rink are all awesome.”