Playoffs are both beginning and end for T-Birds like Wardley, Volcan
When the Thunderbirds began the 2014-2015 season they did so with one of the youngest clubs in the WHL. Over the course of the season, 11 rookies would make their WHL debuts and while green at the beginning, they got stronger as the season wore on.
Of course, the team also has veteran leaders, guys who have spent their entire junior careers wearing a Thunderbirds sweater. Evan Wardley is one of those guys. The bruising defenseman is wrapping up his four-year career with Seattle, a career that saw him become one of the toughest and most intimidating players in the league.
Nolan Volcan is one of those 11 rookies. He may be smaller than Wardley – by about seven inches – but he’s just as tough. The 16-year-old turned in a great rookie year, played some tough minutes and will be a key player as the T-Birds head into their playoff series with the Portland Winterhawks.
“The year went pretty well for us,” Volcan said. “I know going into it I saw a few stories at the start of the year that people were kind of questioning how we were going to do because of how many rookies we had. We were able to pull it all together pretty quick and had a good year. I’m excited to get my first look at the playoffs and we’ll see how it goes.”
Having success in the regular season is one thing but the playoffs are a different animal. This will be Volcan’s and the rest of the rookies’ first taste of postseason hockey. Wardley is making his third playoff experience and knows how different the play is.
“Everyone is just on point,” Wardley said of the playoffs. “Everyone is playing their best hockey because they don’t want the season to be over just like that. One little mistake and the puck can end up in the back of your net. Attention to detail is more important and we’ve got to make sure that we come out ready to play every game.”
Wardley has had some big moments in the playoffs. He scored perhaps the biggest goal in the ShoWare Center era of T-Birds hockey. It was Game 3 against the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets during the 2013 playoffs. Seattle was up in the series and Wardley scored the overtime game-winner in front of a sold-out crowd. It was a great moment and one that he says he does think about from time to time.
Despite that big goal, Seattle couldn’t win that series. With his junior career about to be over, Warldey would love to make one more long run in the playoffs.
“I’d be ecstatic about it,” he said. “I mean, each year we’ve continued to go deeper and deeper in the playoffs. I truly believe that we have a special team this year that could do it. I know we’re up against a lot of good teams. Portland, Everett and Kelowna are the top teams in the conference and we have big task up in front of us now.”
Wardley is also part of the T-Birds’ leadership group. He’s been an alternate captain for most of the season and with as many young players on the roster, it’s an important role. Volcan said that the veteran players have been getting him and his fellow rookies ready for the playoffs.
“Guys have told me that playoffs are a whole other level of hockey,” Volcan said. “A little mistake can decide if you lose or win a game. We’ve got to play as a team, being an individual is not going to help you win a game. It’s a lot more fast paced and you have a lot less time. I’m looking to make simple plays and try not to hurt the team.”
Volcan is a player that looks to be built for the postseason.
Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk put him on the all-important shut-down line early on this year. Volcan has thrived playing against the opponents’ top players each night. He uses his speed, strength and hustle to hit and play solid defense. He’s also chipped in on offense with 23 points on nine goals.
“I like to play physical,” Volcan said. “I like to be intense and I feel like that will help us throughout the playoffs. If we’re a physical team, usually those are the toughest teams to play against.”
The T-Birds are a tough team to play against. They play a 200-foot game and are not afraid to use the body to make life difficult for puck carriers. Wardley is one of the reasons Seattle is hard to play against. There may not be a stronger player in the WHL and he has an intimidating presence on the ice. Opposing forwards are sure to know where he is on the ice.
Wardley likes what he sees from this T-Birds squad.
“I think that we’re a good team that’s built for the playoffs,” he said. “We have enough skill and enough grit that we can really use it to our advantage. We have to know that we can never be too high or too low. We have to take it shift by shift.”
Volcan will have to take it shift by shift in this series with Portland. He’ll be on the ice a lot against Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan, two of the best players in the WHL. He said playing against players like that all year long has been great for his development.
He also knows that containing those two players, while easier said than done, is key for Seattle to have any success.
“They’re great players and you’ve got to know where they are on the ice at all times,” Volcan said. “You can’t take an eye of them and lose them in the D-zone, nine times out of 10 they’re going to capitalize. We’ve got to play them tight and be physical on them. Make sure anything they get out there, they’ve earned.”
Volcan has only been part of the Seattle-Portland rivalry this season. He said going into the year he heard about it and said it didn’t take long during the first game of the year to figure it out. The crowd was loud in Portland that night and he got a taste of just how big a deal this rivalry was.
Wardley knows this rivalry very well. While he understands it’s exciting, he stresses that the T-Birds have to remain focused on the task at hand.
“I think that we’re going to play hard and try to play our best every night,” he said. “Portland is a great team and their stats show it for sure. We’ve just got to come out and try our best every night, stick to the game plan and that’s all that we can do.”
The fans in Portland are very familiar with Wardley’s play as well. He has become public enemy No. 1 in the Rose City, following behind recent holders of that title like Jesse Forsberg and Mitch Elliot. Wardley said it’s all part of the game.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I’m sure our fans feel the same way about some Portland players so it’s all part of the sport. At the end of the day it’s not a big deal to me at all. They can cheer or boo or whatever they want. They’re just passionate about their team down there and that’s totally understandable.”
The playoffs are both beginning and end. For Volcan, he’s just scratching the start of his promising looking career. These next seven games will be a valuable experience for the Edmonton native as he progresses over the next few seasons. For Wardley, its the end of four years in Seattle and the WHL.
He says he will have fond memories of playing for the T-Birds and while he wants to go out a winner, it’s not the game that he’ll miss the most.
“Probably the people I’ve met over the years,” he said. “A lot of good friendships here, I’ve met a lot of good people. It’s been a lot of fun and I can’t say enough good things about the people here in Seattle. I’ve been truly blessed to play all four years of my junior career here.”