After offseason uncertainty, Thunderbirds excited to be back on the ice

Mar 11, 2021, 12:56 PM

After a year away, the Seattle Thunderbirds are excited to be back on the ice. (Brian Liesse/T-Bird...

After a year away, the Seattle Thunderbirds are excited to be back on the ice. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

(Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

It’s not a mirage. It’s not a dream brought on by the length, stress, and uncertainty of a year-long global pandemic that cut deep into the Western Hockey League’s plan for a season. No, it’s all true and hockey is back as the Seattle Thunderbirds are preparing for the start of a WHL season.

Players are in town and got back to the ice this past weekend at the accesso ShoWare Center practicing for a 24-game season that will get underway March 19th at home against the Spokane Chiefs.

“It exciting,” Seattle defenseman Tyrel Bauer said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve been waiting a long time for it. We’ve got some kinks to work out obviously, as a group, and some guys haven’t skated in a while. It’s slowly coming along and we’ll keep getting better every day.”

Practice, especially late in the season in March, can be a drag. But as with everything in life this year, things are different now.

The Thunderbirds took the ice Wednesday with a hop in their step and some audible hoots of joy. Happy for repetitive drills working on the fundamentals and systems that they’ll have to rely on in a week. It’s unclear if this should be referred to as a training camp as there’s only one session a day and there will be no preseason games.

When they lace the skates up on the 19th it will count.

“It’s a little bit different not coming into a regular training camp,” Thunderbirds winger Payton Mount said. “The coaches have had a great plan so far to get us back into game shape. We all have bought in on the system and their ways and we’ll definitely be ready to go on opening night.”

Getting in shape is something the players had extra time for this offseason.

With no hockey, guys found ways to work out on their own. Some of their work is already showing up. Second-year player Matthew Rempe, who was drafted by the New York Rangers in October, hit the weights. The six-foot-eight center played last season around 212 pounds but after a summer of adding muscle is now weighing in at 240.

He’s easy to spot on the ice.

But there’s a difference between gym shape and on the ice, hockey game shape. Getting on the ice and skating was slightly less of a sure thing this year.

Bauer and other players from cooler climates in Alberta and Manitoba found time skating outdoors on rinks referred to as ‘ODR’s’ (outdoor rinks). It really depended on where the players lived.

“I was lucky that in British Columbia they didn’t shut down rinks completely,” Mount said. “I was able to get on the ice while some guys had to rely on skating on the ODRs.”

It’s overkill to state how different the season will be – what in the world today hasn’t changed?

Some of those changes were evident at practice as players wear masks and social distancing off the ice is the new normal. It’s hard to forget the pandemic as the accesso ShoWare Center is doubling as a vaccination site. Vaccine recipients littered the seats, watching as they wait post-shot to make sure there are no allergic reactions.

At practice end, the players raise their sticks to acknowledge the newly vaccinated and the King County Health workers in the building. It’s impossible to avoid the Covid reality.

“It’s been new,” Bauer said. “A lot of things to get used to. A lot of different rules to keep track of but we’ve got the kinks out of that. We’ve had full buy-in from everybody and it’s smooth sailing now and business as usual.”

As practice went on, drills turned into five-on-five play to get a bit of game action in. The team will get more on Thursday night as the Thunderbirds will play their annual Blue-White game. That will be the first chance to gauge what type of team Seattle has this year in a game setting.

It will be a club that is young, maybe as young as last year, but one with a lot of promising talent. One thing that was evident Wednesday was the speed. General manager Bil La Forge has stressed adding speed and the club is starting to take on that look.

There will be plenty of time to judge the club, its new players, and their potential as the season gets underway. But for now, just having hockey back is exciting and has restored some sense of joy.

No fans will be allowed in the arena during the season, but games will available online and on local television. The games will be entertaining, and the development of the players will be valuable but that doesn’t mean the main goal of the players has changed one bit.

“I want to win,” Bauer said. “I want us to keep building, keep getting better every day.”

Some things are back to normal.


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