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Thunderbirds’ historic season filled with reasons to celebrate

ship in franchise history (Keith Hershmiller)

The Seattle Thunderbirds are Western Hockey League Champions.

That’s something that, prior to May 14, could never be said.

And that’s how this season should be remembered.

Training camp opened on August 24, 2016. On May 14, 2017 the Thunderbirds would take turns hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup overhead on the ice of the Brandt Centre in Regina.

There were two hundred and sixty-three days in between.

Two hundred and sixty-three days that won’t be erased by four days in Windsor.

There’s no sugar-coating it: the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup did not go as planned for the Seattle Thunderbirds.

It was a bitter ending to the sweetest season in T-Birds history – one that, just 11 days ago, was being celebrated in Regina. Thirty-nine Seattle teams had sought the elusive title of Western Hockey League champions, but only this year’s team can claim it.

And it’s something that can never be taken away from them.

For the first time in history, there will be a banner hanging from the rafters of the ShoWare Center that says “WHL Champions” and, for as long as this franchise exists, it will stay there.

Major Junior hockey is unlike anything else. In every other sport, there’s one clear cut goal. The Stanley Cup, a Lombardi Trophy, a Larry O’Brien trophy, a National Championship.

Only here, in the Canadian Hockey League, can a champion push through a season that’s a minimum of 84 games long in the OHL and QMJHL and 88 in the WHL, feel the highest of highs, and then follow that up with the lowest of lows in the next two weeks.

No matter what, a minimum of two league champions will have the success they worked so hard for all season feel unreasonably tarnished by a tournament that lasts just a few days.

There’s a reason that some say the Memorial Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports. There are 60 teams in the CHL, a 68- or 72-game regular season, a grueling four rounds of playoffs, thousands of miles of bus travel – the list goes on.

For the Thunderbirds, this season was especially trying.

Seattle’s top two centers barely played half of the regular season. Only one player on the entire roster – Donovan Neuls – played 72 games with the Thunderbirds. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the first game of the Memorial Cup that Seattle was able to assemble a depth chart that didn’t have players scratched due to injury.

But even though they were finally healthy — and I use that term loosely — it became clear that the grind had finally caught up with them, mentally and physically.

Seattle played three games in Windsor. In 180 minutes of hockey, you could argue that we didn’t once see the same team that beat the CHL’s top-ranked Regina Pats four games to two in the WHL Championship.

Even in that series the T-Birds trailed two games to one before winning three in a row. In the clinching Game 6, Seattle fell behind 3-1 with about five minutes left, but fought back to win in overtime.

That championship series and Game 6 victory were reflective of what we saw all season from this T-Birds team. There was no mountain too high for them to climb.

Lose your 20-year-old league-leading goalie two weeks before the playoffs? No problem. They’ll bring in the 17-year-old (16 in hockey years) with seven games of WHL experience and watch him take the league by storm, writing the first chapter in what looks like it’s going to be a lengthy story.

What about your star first-line center, your co-captain, the Western Conference Player of the Year, getting quarantined due to illness at about the same time and missing the end of the regular season and first round of the playoffs? Here come Neuls and Alexander True to average two points per game apiece against the Tri-City Americans en route to a four-game sweep. Even before the illness, Barzal missed a month and a half at the beginning of the season while he was with the New York Islanders and then another month when he was with Team Canada for the World Juniors.

Scott Eansor, your other co-captain and emotional leader, missed the entire second half of the regular season for all intents and purposes with a lower body injury.

Keegan Kolesar’s hernia kept him out of the lineup for the season’s first month and a half and he wasn’t back to full strength for some time after that.

Ethan Bear played the WHL Championship series and Memorial Cup just days after having surgery on a broken hand. During the press conference following Seattle’s third game of the Memorial Cup, we saw Bear publicly in a cast for the first time since taking a shot off the hand in Game 3 of the Western Conference Championship versus Kelowna. Until then, he had hoped to convince everyone – perhaps even himself – that he wasn’t hindered at all.

The list goes on. And on. And on.

But it never seemed to matter. If Seattle could fight through everything they did, there was no task too large.

On paper, Seattle was overmatched in this tournament. Their four NHL draft picks were half as many as the Erie Otters, who had the second-fewest. And one of those draft picks, Bear, the WHL Defenseman of the Year, was nowhere near one hundred percent.

But as the Thunderbirds showed all season, the game isn’t played on paper. No amount of NHL-caliber talent seemed like it could slow them down, let alone numerous bruises and broken bones. The heart that they had shown all season carried them to heights that had never been reached before, so why should the Memorial Cup be any different?

It was different. After the Thunderbirds were eliminated, head coach Steve Konowalchuk publicly stated what everyone who had watched the T-Birds all season already knew: there was just nothing left to give. Mentally, this team was spent. Finally, everything had caught up with them.

It’s a sad thought. The national media and fans from other leagues never had the chance to see what made this Seattle team so special.

Even the usually reserved Konowalchuk said after Game 6 in Regina, “They don’t quit. They haven’t quit all year. Why would they? The character and talent is so impressive to watch. Those guys come back and just keep going.”

There were so many occasions during the season that you thought, “there’s no way they can come back from this.” But they did. Every single time.

Until this week.

When Seattle fell behind 2-0 to Saint John on Tuesday, Konowalchuk looked up and down his bench. Normally, guys were jumping up, ready to go, to claw their way back, but this time was different. This time, the fight was gone. If one player loses that drive, maybe you get in his face or bench him for a few shifts. When it’s everyone, what is there to say?

The deck just seemed to be stacked against this group of young men.

In their quest for a WHL Championship, Seattle traveled more than any other team at the Memorial Cup.

They traveled nearly 12 times as far as the Windsor Spitfires, who were eliminated in the first round of the OHL playoffs. Two and a half times as far as the Erie Otters and over 3,000 kilometers more than the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Seattle opened the WHL Championship with two games in Regina on May 5 and 6. The next day they were on a plane back to Kent for three games in four days. Then it was back to Regina on Saturday to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup on Sunday.

They celebrated Sunday night, flew back to Abbotsford and then drove to Seattle on Monday, had one full day at home, then flew to Windsor on Wednesday.

In a period of 18 days, Seattle had played in nine games and flown and changed time zones five separate times. They spent everything they had to give the city of Seattle its first ever WHL Championship, had essentially one day to celebrate (most of which was spent traveling), then had to completely reset in preparation for the Memorial Cup. The rollercoaster would be difficult for anyone to overcome, let alone a group of young men who had never experienced something like this before.

The travel, the injuries, the illnesses, the quick turnaround, the emotional rollercoaster and of course, some very good opposition, finally became too much.

Nothing should be taken away from the other teams at the Memorial Cup. Windsor, Erie and Saint John have all shown that they belong and possess an extraordinary amount of talent. They’ve been well-coached and well-disciplined and deserve all of the success that they’ll earn in Windsor.

But nothing should be taken away from this Seattle Thunderbirds team either. They made history against all odds exactly 100 years after the Seattle Metropolitans became the first U.S.-based team to win a Stanley Cup.

We’ll never see this group play together again, but their names will remain proudly engraved on the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Together, forever, as champions.