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New GM Bil La Forge ready to take the wheel for Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds are welcoming of the NHL to the Seattle area (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Things never stay static in Junior Hockey. Each year players move on and new ones come in as the cycle keeps churning. The Seattle Thunderbirds have dealt with that transition, like every other WHL team has, but they’ve also experienced a transition at the top. Bil La Forge was hired this summer to be the new general manager of the club, taking over from Russ Farwell, who had the job for a couple of decades.

It’s a transition for La Forge as well.

Prior to joining the Thunderbirds he was stationed in Edmonton but working for the Everett Silvertips as their Director of Player Personnel for the past four seasons. He’s moved his family from Canada to the Seattle area and is switching sides in what has become a fierce rivalry between Seattle and Everett. He is very grateful for his time with the club that he jokingly refers to as ‘that team from the North’ but he is all Thunderbirds now.

He’s also ready for that first regular season match up with the Silvertips.

“I’m excited about it for sure,” La Forge said. “They’re good people over there. I can’t tell you how much I respect them. Do I want to beat them a little more? Probably. It’s not like I have any ill will but that being said, I know who our rivals are.”

His new title brings about new responsibilities but La Forge was entrenched in Everett’s system in regards to the scouting, drafting, and trading of players. He’s thankful for Silvertips General Manager Garry Davidson for giving him a chance to be involved and that should help ease the transition in Seattle.

It also helps that he’ll still have the ear of Farwell, who is staying with the Thunderbirds as the Vice President of Hockey Operations.

“There’s some new things and that’s why I’m so grateful to have Russ around still,” La Forge said. “I don’t feel like I’m swimming upstream. It’s always nice to have a sounding board with someone who’s done it, and done it for a long time.”

With a new boss in charge of the club, change is inevitable but La Forge says fans may not notice any changes right off the bat. First, he needs to get to know the team he has.

While he’s familiar with the Seattle roster, having seen them as an opponent, as well as the players that the Thunderbirds have in their system, he still is looking forward to getting to know them personally and seeing them face to face. He has spoken with most of the current roster over the telephone but next week’s training camp will be a chance to really see what he’s got.

“Information is very valuable,” La Forge added. “I have sat down with Matt (O’Dette) and we’ve gone over the depth chart. I’ve done the same with Russ. Some of the opinions I had before are differing from what I have now. So, we’ll go through the process and see. There may be some things I like as different attributes than they did. Matt has to coach the team and I have to do my best to make sure he has the best ingredients available.”

Finding those ingredients is ultimately the bottom line for a general manager.

This past spring’s Bantam Draft occurred before La Forge was brought over but he likes the players that the Thunderbirds picked.

“They had a great draft,” he said. “I’m really confident in saying that. The Mekai Sanders pick late, that was a tremendous pick. Our first-round pick is really good. There weren’t any picks that I didn’t like, I thought they had a really good day.”

Kai Uchacz was that first round pick and La Forge likes the way the forward plays. Uchacz has yet to sign with Seattle but La Forge says he is confident that they are moving in a positive direction towards that.

Moving forward, La Forge will have more of an impact on the type of players that Seattle looks to bring in. He says he has a formula on what a Thunderbird should look like, emphasizing speed, skill, and hockey sense. Those are the types of players that he will look to bring in to Seattle.

“I have a depth chart on my computer for five years down the road,” La Forge said. “I don’t want to be a team that spikes, I want to be good all the time. We always want to be good and give ourselves a chance to win every year.”

Handling the trade deadline is another hall mark of a general manager.

La Forge comes from an Everett team that has not been shy about trading away high picks to bring in key pieces to help win now.

“I always took that as a compliment,” he said. “(Garry Davidson) had so much faith in me that we can trade that first round pick and find someone later. Make sure the cupboards are so full that you have that flexibility. Our best drafts were between the third and sixth rounds. If you stick with the formula of what a Thunderbird looks like. If you stick with that, you can find guys later in the draft.”

La Forge also is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean you part with high picks easily and it really depends on the season, but we could see a Seattle team in the future that is more willing to trade away assets for current season success.

The team that La Forge has now is still very much a young team.

There are only a few pieces remaining from the 2017 WHL Championship team. The cycle has churned but Seattle has some promising players still coming into their own. The team’s 2017 first-round pick, Payton Mount, will be working for a regular spot this season, as will second-round pick Tyrel Bauer.

“I really like what Payton did last year,” La Forge said. “He’s a guy that can score, you can’t have enough of those. I was a big fan of Bauer at the Bantam…I think he’ll be able to play a variety of different roles. I think he’s going to give himself a chance to make the team, but you have to be careful not to rush those guys.”

Those younger players along with players like Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee, Samuel Huo, Holden Katzalay, and others will be looking to take a big step this coming season. They will make up the young core of the club and how they do may be an indicator as to how the Thunderbirds fare overall.

“We want the young guys to take a step,” La Forge said. “The coaching staff we have here is top notch. I’m really excited about the group. Developing those young guys to push the old guys so that they have some competition will be important. I like the way we look right now.”

The Thunderbirds are slated to open training camp on August 21st.