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Thomas Milic ready to push for the Thunderbirds top goalie spot

Goalie Thomas Milic had to bide his time but will be a big part of the Thunderbirds plans this season. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

It was a run-of-the-mill Thursday lunch hour for Thomas Milic last January when his phone started to ring. The first to call was Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette. He informed Milic, Seattle’s third-round draft pick in 2018, that the team needed him in Seattle the next night to fill in at goal for an injured Blake Lyda in what was the first of a crucial three-in-three weekend for the Thunderbirds.

The 16-year-old Milic was going to make his WHL debut but first had to finish his school day.

“I was pretty excited, luckily there wasn’t too much going on in class that day,” Milic remembers.

He went home, packed, and made the morning drive from Burnaby, British Columbia to Kent to get acclimated to the team.

The Regina Pats would be the opponent that night and Milic played well in net while not displaying any outward nerves. He made a big save early and would keep Seattle in it as the Thunderbirds struggled through two periods before finding their footing in the third. Milic turned away 23 shots to earn his first WHL win in his first start.

“I was pretty nervous going into it, during the anthem,” Milic says of his debut. “As soon as the puck dropped, I was dialed in and ready to go. Being able to make a save right off the bat and feel the electric crowd going crazy, that was a pretty cool experience.”

Milic is part of what is shaping up to be an impressive 2018 draft class for Seattle. Unlike his fellow classmates – Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, and Mekai Sanders – he only spent a couple of weeks with the Thunderbirds last year.

After a strong training camp last fall, the tough decision to send Milic back to the Burnaby Winter Club was eventually made. With an NHL drafted goalie like Roddy Ross sure to eat up most of the starts, Milic didn’t figure to play much last season — a notion backed up by Lyda only appearing in 18 games.

As tough as it was to return home, it worked out as Milic turned in a strong season by posting a .976 save percentage with a minuscule 1.78 goals-against in Burnaby. It was that performance that gave the Thunderbirds confidence they could turn to him to make a start during a playoff push.

“I thought I had a really good year in Burnaby and got to play quite a few games,” Milic says. “I think it was the right decision to make. When I was called up, I got to see what Ross does behind the scenes, see how he prepares as a pro. I learned a lot from him.”

Things will be different this season.

With Milic now 17, the Thunderbirds want him to play in the WHL. To do so they were willing to move Ross in an April trade to free up the net.

It was a move that says a lot about the faith Seattle has in both Milic and Lyda.

“For (general manager Bil La Forge) to have that trust in me and Lyda is special,” Milic says. “I think we’ll have a good battle to win some games. This whole summer, how long it ends up being, is all about training to get better every day.”

The Thunderbirds were not the only ones who were pleased with Milic’s performance in Burnaby.

Hockey Canada noticed and Milic was selected to play for Canada in the U17 Championships. Again he shined by leading the tournament with a .925 save percentage playing against the world’s top players in his age group.

“That was an amazing experience,” he says. “It’s something you always dream about watching on TV. Being able to wear the maple leaf was a cool experience. And being able to represent my family…that was really special.”

Growing up in the Vancouver area, Milic rooted for the Canucks and goalie Roberto Luongo. But, as a player, he started off by skating out and enjoyed scoring goals.

As he got older, however, the notion of stepping in front of shots between the pipes started to feel appealing. The rest is history, so to say.

“It was something I always gravitated towards,” Milic says. “Whenever nobody wanted to get in net I stepped in and liked having pucks fired at me. I guess it chose me.”

This coming season will be his NHL Draft year as the goaltender will be eligible for the 2021 draft.

It’s too early to know where he fits into that draft’s projections, but he got a big feather in his cap this summer when Hockey Canada invited him to its Hlinka-Gretzky tournament selection camp. The tournament is the unofficial, annual kick-off to the NHL Draft prospect season.

Unfortunately, the tournament has been canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic but Milic’s inclusion – Roulette was also selected – says that NHL scouts are aware and watching.

“That’s always going to be in the back of my mind but I’m just focusing on the now and getting ready to have a good season,” he says of the NHL Draft. “To be selected by any team has been a dream of mine since I was little so that would be pretty cool.”

Milic will be part of the Thunderbirds young core that La Forge and O’Dette are hoping will be the group that leads them to great things over the next three seasons. He had to watch his peers, that he got to know in training camps, play in the WHL last year without him but now will be front and center in their success.

It’s something that is not lost on him.

“I’m really excited,” he says. “Since the Bantam Draft, we all came together from all over Canada and bonded as a group. To see how we’ve all grown, I’m definitely excited for the future.”