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The future starts now for Thunderbirds rookies Gustafson and Korchinski

Thunderbirds rookie Jordan Gustafson (who will wear number 7 this year) is part of an exciting rookie class. (Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

Seattle Thunderbirds rookie center Jordan Gustafson picked the puck up just inside his own blue line. He took two quick strides before spotting Keltie Jeri-Leon racing up the right wing. Gustafson snapped a pass that found Jeri-Leon’s stick in stride, sending him into the offensive zone with a step on the defense. The whole exchange took place in a breath.

It happened during the Thunderbirds Blue-White game last week and was just one example of Gustafson’s game. Quickness and speed.

“I want to be the type of player who can transition up ice and create offense,” the rookie center from Alberta says. “I want to be the type of player that can reload fast and be a 200-foot player. If you want to play offense you have to play defense first.”

Gustafson is one of four rookies that will get a fair amount of ice time for Seattle this year as the Thunderbirds kick off their season Friday night against the Spokane Chiefs.

He joins fellow forward Gabe Ludwig with defensemen Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner as the Thunderbirds new rookie class. Speed and quickness are the defining characteristics of the newcomers.

“Lots of speed, lots of smarts,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette says of his rookies. “Our scouts have done a great job finding these types of players. Not only great character kids but we really value speed and hockey sense, and all of those guys have that. We’ve been very impressed if not blown away by the talent and how advanced these guys are for their age.”

Age is always relevant when talking about junior players.

While Gustafson turned 17 in January, he is part of the 2004-born rookie group who are all in what is considered their 16-year-old hockey year. It’s a tough transition from minor hockey to one of the top junior circuits in the world and the four rookies are in for a lot of lessons this season.

Youth is something that the Thunderbirds are familiar with as they played four 16-year-old rookies – Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Mekai Sanders — consistently last season as well. In normal circumstances, a coach may want to bring those players along slowly, shelter them from tough matchups to gain confidence.

With just 24 games on the schedule, that may not be the case this year.

“They’re going to play,” O’Dette says. “The biggest reason we’re playing this year is the development of our guys both young and old. What they’re going to get will definitely be earned. We want to get these guys on the ice and get comfortable with the league. They can’t take that next step without taking the first one.”

Facing top players, guys like Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Seth Jarvis of Portland or Minnesota Wild prospect Adam Beckman with Spokane, will be tough. The matchups will be hard each night.

Gustafson doesn’t want it any other way.

“That’s the player I want to be,” he says. “If I can, I want to be out against the best players. I like the good challenge. I feel like I play better against better teams because it brings my compete level out. I want to be the player that gets the line matchups and is in a tight-checking game.”

The matchups will be equally as tough for Korchinski, who will have his hands full on the Seattle blue line.

“Anytime you can go against the top players in the league it’s a great learning opportunity,” he says.

Korchinski and Gustafson are the marquee names of the rookie class. Both players were selected high in the first round of the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft – Gustafson eighth overall while Korchinski was 10th.

They bring with them massive offensive numbers as they dominated play at the lower levels. Scoring and piling up points are already on their resume. They’re leveling up in a big way this year as the competition becomes elite.

That inevitably will lead to some rookie mistakes. It happens to the best of players as the league is a grind for 16-year-olds. Mistakes are going to happen.

The rookies need to learn how to deal with those mistakes, grow from them, and further their development.

“You have to remember that you’re here for a reason and you’re a good hockey player,” Korchinski says. “Just forget about those mistakes, learn from them, but don’t let them affect your confidence or your game.”

O’Dette adds that it’s his and his coaches’ job, to work with the rookies. He wants them to not fear making a mistake and to get out of their comfort zone. The coaches want to use positive reinforcement, and film studies, to work with the young players.

During the past two weeks of practice, the team’s coaches have spent time learning what messaging works best with these players. So far, the players seem to embrace it.

“There’s always going to be a mistake or sometimes you’ll be in a slump,” Gustafson says. “You’ve got to stay positive. I think just coming to the rink and enjoying it is important. For my first year, I want to soak it all in, have fun with the guys, and not worry too much about my performance. It will all come.”

The Thunderbirds are excited about the future with this year’s rookies. It’s building off the impressive rookie class last year as the Thunderbirds have a great deal of talent in their 17 and 16-year old groups.

Both Gustafson and Korchinski came up last season to get a game or two in. That experience gave them a peek at what the WHL was like both on and off the ice.

They saw firsthand the speed, quickness, and talent they were going to face. They saw how the older players took care of their bodies before and after games. They got to know their new teammates a little more.

Now their turn begins.

Potential is exciting but can be dangerous when talking about young junior hockey players as expectations can rocket through the roof.  Level heads will be needed as they go through the ups and downs of the WHL. The potential is there for Seattle’s rookies and the first push of the blades is Friday night when they take their first shifts as regular WHLers.

“I bet you it’s going to be fun,” Gustafson says about Friday. “There will probably be some nerves but I’m happy to be here and to be playing hockey again. It’s much better than plying on the (outdoor rinks) at home. I might need to get a big hit in, or take a big hit, to wake me up.”