Memorial Cup loss doesn’t take away from Thunderbirds’ magical season

May 24, 2017, 5:05 PM | Updated: May 25, 2017, 9:12 am

The Seattle Thunderbirds season was the best in franchise history (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)...

The Seattle Thunderbirds season was the best in franchise history (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

(Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

WINDSOR, Ontario – The Seattle Thunderbirds returned home on Wednesday afternoon after being eliminated from the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Back in Windsor, the Erie Otters and the host Spitfires played to finish out the round-robin portion of the tournament. While they battled it out on the ice, the Thunderbirds logo was still proudly being displayed high in the WFCU Centre rafters.

Proud is the right word.

While this past week did not go as the Thunderbirds had hoped it would, and in fact turned into a nightmare being played out on national television, it shouldn’t take any bloom off the season the club just finished.

After Tuesday’s 7-0 loss to the Saint John Sea Dogs, the Seattle players were very emotional. Many were fighting back tears with most losing that battle.

The Memorial Cup is like nothing else in sports. Only in North American major junior hockey will two champions end their season feeling like they lost. Like they let down their teammates, coaches and fans. Some argue that the Memorial Cup is one of the hardest trophies to win, since you have to win your league title to get here.

But isn’t it harder to win a league title?

It was hard for Seattle. The things they had to overcome this year with injuries and players missing due to tournaments or NHL camps has been well documented. Yet, still they overcame that all and won the first championship in franchise history.

They took on the CHL’s top-ranked team in Regina and outplayed them for the majority of the series to beat them. They are coming off the first back-to-back 40-plus wins in team history while winning two straight conference titles along the way.

Next fall, there will be two banners raised at the ShoWare Center and they’ll hang there forever. That is an accomplishment that three bad days in Windsor aren’t going to erase, aren’t going to change.

You can speculate a number of reasons for why things went wrong for Seattle at the Memorial Cup.

You can point to the travel. You can point to the time change. You can look at the disparity in talent as Seattle had four NHL-drafted players, half as many the next team.

Those factors probably played a role on some level, but head coach Steve Konowalchuk summed it up after the loss to Saint John.

“It felt like they were done mentally,” he said in the postgame press conference Tuesday night.

You could see it.

All year long, this Seattle team fought back from adversity, whether it was in-game or with injuries. There was the stretch in the second half where it seemed every night they were playing with a short roster. It didn’t matter, they found a way to fight back and win.

In Windsor, they didn’t have any fight left.

When they got down, they couldn’t find a way to dig deep one more time. Credit to the other three teams in the tournament. They found a way to re-ignite the fire again while, for whatever reason, Seattle couldn’t.

The Memorial Cup is for sure a prestigious event. The team that hoists that Cup on Sunday will be the 99th team to do so. While that is a long time, it is a myth that it’s the hardest trophy to win. Winning your league title is the hardest thing to do.

That takes four long and sometimes grueling playoff series. The Memorial Cup requires you to win three or four games. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Memorial Cup is the hardest tournament to qualify for. Winning it is gravy.

Seattle qualified for the tourney by winning the WHL Championship in a dramatic fashion that the organization, players and its fans will never forget. On top of all of it, the team was entertaining to watch. They were a perfect cocktail of skill in players like Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear. To match that, they had grit in guys like Keegan Kolesar and Scott Eansor.

Those five guys made up a core that turned a franchise that had missed the postseason for three straight years to one that now has high expectations each year. Their Seattle careers ended in Windsor, but their legacy will carry on.

Seattle will be in for a bit of rebuild next season, the junior hockey cycle catching up with them. But, it will have good clubs again and when it does, there will be a new bar to reach. A bar set by this team, this year.

And that is something to celebrate.


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