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NHL Draft turns dream come true for three Thunderbirds and one ex Thunderbird

Matthew Wedman was selected by the Florida Panthers at the NHL Draft Saturday, he was one of three Thunderbirds selected. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Seattle Thunderbirds forward Henrik Rybinski decided that to avoid draft day nerves, he’d take a driver’s ed class during the proceedings Saturday.

Rybinski, who lives in Vancouver, was in the middle of his class when he found out that he had been selected by the Florida Panthers in the fifth round with the 136th pick overall. He quickly ducked out of class and headed to Rogers Arena.

“It was pretty difficult, not going to lie,” he said about concentrating on the class while the draft was happening. “I was kind of shaking in the car, my hands were trembling. I’m kind of still shaking but it’s not nervous, I’m excited and looking forward to the future.”

The smile on Rybinski’s face never wavered and he was hopeful that his Seattle teammates would get to experience what he was going through.

While he was at the podium speaking to the media, that hope became a reality as goalie Roddy Ross was picked by the Philadelphia Flyers in the sixth round with pick number 169. Ross was home in Meadow Lake, Sask. dealing with a power outage.

In order to keep watching the draft, a quick hook up to a car battery was all it took to power the television back up so he could hear his name called from the Rogers Arena floor.

“I wasn’t too nervous to start the day,” Ross said. “I didn’t realize how nervous I was until I found out I was being drafted.”

Later in the day, Matthew Wedman was getting home in Edmonton after a session on the ice. He sat down on his couch where his parents were watching the draft and five minutes later, he heard his name called by the Florida Panthers, who had taken him in the seventh round with pick number 199.

Timing is everything.

“I’m still in disbelief, it seems surreal,” Wedman said. “It’s been an exciting day. I had to do a double take when I saw my name on the screen.”

At the start of the day, former Thunderbird Dillon Hamaliuk was chosen in the second round, pick number 55, by the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks had made a trade to move up and make the pick.

“I honestly didn’t think I would go at 55,” Hamaliuk said. “When the Sharks traded up, I thought about how I had some good talks with them at the combine. I saw my name and couldn’t believe it, and then my phone blew up.”

Rybinski to the Panthers

After starting the season in Medicine Hat, Rybinski left the Tigers to wait for a trade and a better role for himself. Seattle general manager Bil La Forge picked him up in a deal before January’s deadline and once with Seattle, Rybinski flourished.

He was a point-per-game player with the Thunderbirds by scoring seven goals and 28 assists in 33 games. The change of scenery paid off.

“They were really welcoming and just let me play hockey and have fun,” he said about the coaches and teammates in Seattle. “It’s why I started playing hockey. When you have that mindset and people are encouraging you, it really helped my game.”

Rybinski turned out to be a relentless forechecker, causing havoc and stripping pucks. He’s a player that created puck possession and set up his teammates.

He was a big part of the Thunderbirds success in the second half of the season.

“We want our guys to be rewarded for all their hard work,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said at Rogers Arena Saturday. “We were excited as a staff, we let out a little cheer when he was drafted. It’s a great accomplishment for ‘Rybie and for the Seattle organization.”

Ross drafted by the Flyers

Like Rybinski, Ross came to the Thunderbirds halfway through the season. He was discovered in a AJHL game by Lindsey Leckelt, one of the Seattle owners. Once in Seattle, he became the number one goalie and led the Thunderbirds to the playoffs.

“What a story,” O’Dette said of his goalie. “He put in the work and got rewarded for it. Great job by Dan (Leckelt) and Lindsey for finding him. On to Bil and (goalie coach Ian Gordon) and the rest is history. He was great for us and a big part of our turnaround.”

Ross had chances to attend WHL camps before coming to Seattle but had turned them down. In the end, he chose to sign at the right time. The Thunderbirds had traded Liam Hughes which gave him a chance to play.

“I don’t think this would have happened if I didn’t get into the WHL this year,” Ross said.

He quickly became a fan favorite, thanks to his 16-5-1-2 record, 2.76 goals-against and .919 save-percentage. At six-foot-four, he’s got NHL size and will now head off to the Flyers development camp in the summer before training camp in the fall.

Then it will be back to the Thunderbirds and his fellow drafted teammates.

“I’m proud to see those guys get drafted,” Ross said. “I can’t wait to see and get on the ice with Rybisnki again, it’s really exciting.”

Wedman taken by the Panthers

Coming into the draft, there was a question about whether Wedman would be drafted or not. As a 19-year-old, he was in his last year of draft eligibility, after being passed up the last two seasons.

“I thought it could go either way,” he said from his home in Edmonton Saturday. “It’s a dream come true, a dream that I’ve had since I was four years old.”

He was coming off a monster 40-goal season and he has the size the NHL likes in a center, and the physical play to boot. There was a chance.

There were scouts interested him during the season and the Panthers liked what they saw.

“Big heavy, hard player that scores goals and goes to the dirty areas,” Florida general manager Dave Tallon said Saturday. “If you watched the NHL Playoffs and the Final, that was really evident. You had to be able to withstand that down low and play strong, heavy minutes.  And that’s what we like, as an ability to score goals and work through traffic.”

Wedman will be eligible to play in the American Hockey League next year, if that’s where the Panthers determine his development will best be served. Its one of the advantages to drafting an older player.

“You know we can get them right away and get them to Springfield … they have an opportunity to make our team,” Tallon added.

The Springfield Thunderbirds are the Panther’s affiliate and while Wedman knows he’ll be a Thunderbird next season, he’s not sure yet what city that will be in.

“I’ll have to see when I get into camp down there but for now it’s Seattle,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Hamaliuk to the Sharks

Thanks to a Bantam Draft day trade, Hamaliuk is now a member of the Kelowna Rockets but as he’s yet to play a game there, his selection by the San Jose Sharks felt like the fourth Seattle player chosen in the draft.

“Good kid and it’s great to see him get drafted,” O’Dette said about his former winger. “We’ve been with Hammer since he was 15 and its nice to see that progression and see one of his dreams come true.”

Hamaliuk got hot early last season with Seattle and raced out to an 11-goal and 15-assist start over the Thunderbirds first 31 games. He then suffered a knee injury in late December and missed the remainder of the regular season.

Coming into the draft, it was unclear how that injury might affect his status.

“I know some teams were worried about the injury and some weren’t,” he said. “I was going to go hard on my rehab either way. Just take it step by step and come back strong.”

He says that he doesn’t know much about San Jose other than he’s heard it’s a nice place to live and play. He’ll also be playing alongside former Thunderbirds Alexander True and Brenden Dillon.

This coming season in Kelowna, Hamaliuk will get to play in the Memorial Cup as the Rockets are the host team.

“Excited for the opportunity and the chance that if I play well and have a good season I could possibly sign and maybe play in the AHL next year,” Hamaliuk said on Saturday.