THUNDERBIRDS

Keltie Jeri-Leon set to play his final WHL game as Thunderbirds face Spokane Sunday

May 9, 2021, 12:04 PM
Keltie Jeri-Leon plays his final WHL game for the Thunderbirds Sunday night. (Brian Liesse)...
Keltie Jeri-Leon plays his final WHL game for the Thunderbirds Sunday night. (Brian Liesse)
(Brian Liesse)

KENT – Seattle Thunderbirds forward Keltie Jeri-Leon remained on the bench Saturday night after his team dropped a 4-1 game to the Everett Silvertips. The 20-year-old wasn’t injured but rather needed a moment. Saturday was Jeri-Leon’s 270th WHL game – regular season and playoffs — and Sunday will be the 271st and final one he will play in junior hockey.

“I hate to lose, I’m really competitive,” Jeri-Leon said about his post-game moment alone. “One of those against our rivals stings for sure but, I was just trying to take it all in and enjoy.”

Seattle is the fourth stop Jeri-Leon made during his five-year career but it’s as a Thunderbird that he has played his best hockey, finally finding a home.

A New Year’s Day trade in 2019 brought him to the Thunderbirds and he turned himself into a valuable player for the organization on the ice, and a crucial leader off.

“He’s been an unbelievable T-Bird,” head coach Matt O’Dette said Saturday. “Can’t say enough about him. From day one he’s just been a high-quality human being and turned himself into a heck of a hockey player. The evolution of his game, turning into an elite goal scorer, that’s just a testament of his hard work and dedication to his craft. He’s put in the work and along the way rubbed off on the young guys and helped move our culture in the right direction. He’s had an impact on everyone in our locker room.”

Jeri-Leon blossomed with the Thunderbirds last season.

He found chemistry with Henrik Rybinski and Connor Roulette, helping form a true scoring line that the Thunderbirds desperately needed. After not being a scorer, he worked on his shot and became a sniper, firing wrist shots at will, finding the narrow corners in the net. Jeri-Leon scored 23 goals and 41 points to set career highs and came into the season as Seattle’s lone over-aged player, set on improving on his numbers.

Boy did he.

Heading into Sunday’s finale, Jeri-Leon has 16 goals – including his third period shut out avoiding score Saturday night – and 25 points. He’s averaging 1.14 points per game, nearly doubling his career-best. That’s a pace that would see him pile up 78 points over a normal full season.

Playing a shortened 23-game season is not ideal but Jeri-Leon made the most of his last chance this year.

“I was praying and hoping to get one more opportunity here to see what I could do,” he said.

He’s been a large part of the Thunderbirds attack this year, teaming up again with Rybinski. As players have been injured or off playing in international tournaments, he’s been the glue. He’s been a leader and mentor to Seattle’s young roster, just as he was last season.

The season is ending without a playoff and without a proper send-off but Jeri-Leon can skate off the ice Sunday knowing he made an impact.

“It’s unfortunate with the end of last season and not getting a full season this year, that’s not how you want your last year to go,” O’Dette said. “Not getting a playoff run, you play the hand you’re dealt and he came into the season with high expectations and lofty goals, and he achieved them. He came out with the right attitude and he delivered.”

The Thunderbirds posted a video on the team’s social media of Jeri-Leon skating off the ice after his last practice with the team Friday afternoon. As he stepped off the ice, he took one look over his shoulder at the empty accesso ShoWare Center.

He’ll step on that ice one more time Sunday to wrap up his career, a career that feels like it just got going.

“It’s crazy how fast five years fly by,” Jeri-Leon said. “Everyone says enjoy it while it lasts, and it couldn’t be more true. I’m grateful for the last five years, being able to play in this league, be a regular in this league. Now I’m about to play my last game in the league. Normally you don’t know when the end is coming so this is different…it will be emotional.”

It’s also the team around Jeri-Leon’s last game of the season.

The young Thunderbirds have dealt with a lot in this short season and will look to end it on a positive note. Jeri-Leon has helped pull the team through the ups and downs this year and for the rest of the squad, Sunday will be an all-out effort to get one more win.

“We’ve played so hard all year,” O’Dette said. “We have a ton of character and a ton of resiliency. We’re competitors and proud of the work we’ve put in and it’s a matter of ending it the same way and the right way. We’re going to let it all hang out.”

Seattle finishes its season Sunday at 5 pm at the accesso ShoWare Center.

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