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Thanks to trades, the Thunderbirds have reunited three friends and former teammates

Seattle defenseman Owen Williams has been reunited with two former teammates thanks to trades. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Owen Williams received a surprise text message late during August’s training camp. It was from an old friend of his from Vancouver who had some exciting news.

The text came from Hunter Donohoe and it said, ‘I’m coming over’.

Donohoe had just received word that he had been traded from the Red Deer Rebels to the Thunderbirds and the move reunited not just two friends, but rather three. Williams, Donohoe and Henrik Rybinski all played together in the British Columbia Major Midget League for the Greater Vancouver Canadians when they were 15-years-old.

“It was pretty funny to get that text,” Williams says.

There are few bonds in life like those you have with your friends when you’re in your early teens. Being teammates in any sport can intensify that bond and the three have fond memories of playing together prior to starting their respective WHL careers.

“We had a really great group of guys,” Rybinski recalls. “Probably the most fun I had playing hockey was that year. We were really close, and we still see each other all around.”

The 2016-2017 Greater Vancouver Canadians were quite the club.

Along with the three Thunderbirds players, they also featured Edmonton Oil Kings forward Scott Atkinson, Tri-City Americans star Sasha Mutala, and Red Deer forward Chris Douglas. Two of those players – Mutala and Rybinski – would go on to be drafted by NHL teams.

“When we were playing, we considered ourselves underdogs,” Donohoe says. “Now looking back we had a lot of good players on that team. A lot of guys that have moved on and that are playing junior and having good careers. We were a pretty close group and it was a lot of fun.”

The Canadians finished with a 22-13-3-2 which was good for fourth overall in the league. They made it all the way to the league championship round where they would fall in three games to the Cariboo Cougars.

Playing in the BCMML is a good primer for stepping up into the WHL.

The league boasts some big names as alumni, many who have reached the NHL. That list includes former Thunderbirds stars Shea Theodore and Mathew Barzal.

“It was kind of the college schedule where we’d play back-to-back on weekends,” Donohoe remembers of the BCMML. “It was really competitive, and every game meant a lot. It was a super fun league to play in and everyone I know that played in it loved it.”

When the season ended in 2017 the players spread out throughout the WHL, BCHL, and other junior leagues. None of the three in Seattle were drafted by the Thunderbirds but fate, and several trades brought them together again.

Williams was first. He was originally drafted by the Regina Pats but came to Seattle in January of 2018. Rybinski would follow a year later, coming to the Thunderbirds on this past New Year’s Day, in a trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Being traded as a young player is an adjustment, but it helps to have a familiar face in the dressing room.

“Just knowing one guy made a huge difference,” Rybinski says. “I know that if I didn’t know anyone, I would have been terrified. It definitely helped having (Williams) here. Now that Donnie’s here we’ve been joking about who’s coming next.”

With all three landing back in Seattle, it’s a reminder of how small the hockey world is, especially in the WHL.

A week ago, the three Thunderbirds played against Tri-City and their friend Mutala. After the game, there were hellos and laughs in the accesso ShoWare hallways between the four former teammates.

It’s a scene that is played out everywhere in the league, on a nightly basis.

“Whether you’re in Saskatchewan or in British Columbia, you’re at a prime age that you share a lot of memories and do a lot of things together,” Williams says. “It’s a small world and you don’t really realize it until you really think about it. Maybe you saw a guy once or know a guy through a guy but anybody can hang with anybody. It’s a small, niche group.”

Having two or three years in junior under their belt the three are expected to provide veteran leadership to the young Thunderbirds roster. The season will be long, and there will be highs and lows, but the three are happy that they get to extend and build on the bond that they started together three years ago.

“The bonds you build in minor hockey and in midget, it’s pretty special,” Donohoe says.