Thunderbirds end strange and hard season on a high note with dominating win over Spokane
KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds saved their best game for last.
Wrapping up what has been a difficult season Sunday at the accesso ShoWare Center the Thunderbirds dominated the Spokane Chiefs on route to a 3-0 win in which they outshot the visitors 58-21. They finished the 23-game schedule with a 10-12-0-1 record and in third place in the U.S. Division standings.
Sunday wasn’t about the record or standings. Rather, it was about finishing strong while sending over-ager Keltie Jeri-Leon out on a happy note. Mission accomplished.
“That was definitely the right way to go out,” head coach Matt O’Dette said.
Jeri-Leon scored a goal while adding an assist and ends his WHL career with points in his last six games. Mekai Sanders picked up his first goal of the season and rookie Sam Oremba scored in the win. Seattle was backed by 21 saves from Jackson Berry who missed out on his first career shutout by inexplicably getting into a fight with Spokane goalie Mason Beaupit with 30 seconds left.
When the final horn sounded, the Thunderbirds surrounded Jeri-Leon, in a testament as to what he meant to the players and organization.
“He came in and we had a pretty instant bond, we had a great connection,” Seattle captain Tyrel Bauer said of Jeri-Leon. “He was really close with all the guys, he kind of brought me in when I was 16 and still young in the league. He had been in the league a while and whether it was dragging me into the gym for a workout or picking me up after a bad game, we just built something that I don’t think many guys have.
“That was an emotional one and I’m super glad we could that that dub for him. It’s never easy to see. It’s the hardest part of playing in the league but at the end of the day, Keltie has so many opportunities ahead of him and he’s a first-class person. There are only great things coming for that guy.”
After all the players left the ice, Jeri-Leon remained at center ice by himself.
He turned and looked one last time at every corner of the arena has called home for the past two-plus seasons. As he skated off the ice he was prompted by teammates and billets to take one last lap. While skating around the arena he again, took it all in.
“I’ve really got no words,” Jeri-Leon said an hour after the game, still wearing his jersey and gear. “It’s bittersweet I guess you could say. It sucks it’s over; it sucks because this is such a great group of guys and it’s going to be tough moving on. You always want to end the season on a win. In a normal season, you try to win them all and go all the way. In a season like this, you try to get the last game and it definitely feels good going into the off-season.”
The Thunderbirds held their season team awards ceremony after the game and Jeri-Leon was voted as the most dedicated player.
His impact and bond were immeasurable, and he was in tears as the game and his WHL career ended Sunday night. It’s a shame that he only got 23 games this season since he was on pace to turn in a monster statistical campaign and obliterate his career numbers.
“It’s not hard to see why he gets voted by his teammates as the most dedicated,” O’Dette said. “He’s got time for everyone, he’s got something thoughtful to say, and he treats all the young guys with tons of respect. He’s done that since he got here. It really helps to have an older guy that helps our young guys feel comfortable and able to perform. I think he gets an immense amount of credit for the success some of your young had this season.”
The Thunderbirds dealt with a lot of adversity this season.
Starting with a young roster they saw a number of injuries sideline key players which forced those young players into more playing time and larger roles. They suffered through a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season but were able to fight through it and win three games out of five down the stretch.
“I think a word that stands out this year is ‘resiliency’,” O’Dette said. “Guys keep getting off the canvas. In games we fell down we kept fighting and got back in the game. That losing streak, our guys didn’t get down, didn’t lose focus, and kept pushing, kept working to get better. Our goal the last several weeks was to take every game like a separate challenge. The goal was at the end of the night to feel good and happy in the locker room. As a coaching staff, it’s a joy to see those guys smiling in the locker room.”
Injuries and inexperience were one hurdle, but the Thunderbirds also had to deal with Covid and the safety issues surrounding it.
In order to get the 23 games in safely, the club, led by athletic trainer Phil Varney, established thorough protocols to ensure the players and staff would avoid infection. Those protocols allowed the team to play the entire season without any positive tests or lost games.
The players deserve a lot of credit. Their lives became hockey, and they were either at the rink or home with their billet families. No hanging with buddies after practice, no way to get away from hockey and reset.
O’Dette and his staff tried to make sure they offered some fun team bonding. They held barbeques in the arena parking lot, played kickball at a local park, and tried to have fun games on the ice in practice.
“There was a lot of sacrifice, nothing was clear cut and things were constantly changing,” Bauer said. “We didn’t want to put the team at risk of having a shutdown and missing a healthy part of the season, so it took buy-in. This team bought in and we knew what it was coming in but at the end of the day, we were so happy to be able to play. I’m really proud of the guys and the way we stepped up in these circumstances. It was difficult, we weren’t able to go see our buddies, or go grab some food. But we found a way to bond in other ways. I think that’s kudos to our leadership group.”
In the end, the Thunderbirds accomplished what they set out to do at the start of the season.
They got their players ice time, got their draft-eligible players views by NHL scouts, got their older players further exposure, and were able to get their exciting young core valuable experience. It’s experience that should pay off in upcoming seasons.
Every player other than Jeri-Leon is eligible to return next year. That doesn’t mean they all will. Seattle will look at adding import players next season, and there could be some turnover, as there is in every WHL offseason.
But the excitement surrounding this current roster is real and ending it on the high note Sunday should send everyone home happy.
“I think this feeling and the way we had to play was a great learning experience for our guys,” Bauer said. “They’re going to know what it takes to play in this league and how if you work day in and day out, good things happen. There’s been a lot of things going this season, a lot of adversity that we’ve gone through as a group.
“It made us a lot better in the long run. To get that win for Keltie it was something special and now we go into the offseason on a happy note and ready to come back and do some damage.”