Thunderbirds to see friendly faces during weekend Alberta swing
Less than 24-hours after Seattle Thunderbirds rookie Lucas Ciona scored his first career WHL goal he was on a bus headed home.
He wasn’t alone. His Thunderbirds teammates piled on to the same bus Wednesday afternoon as the team embarks on a three-game swing through Alberta that begins Friday night in Red Deer against the Rebels. Ciona, 16, is one of 10 Thunderbirds who hail from Alberta, many of whom are going to be playing in front of friends and family for the first time in the WHL.
Ciona is from Edmonton, where Seattle will play on Saturday night.
“I’m so excited,” he said with a smile when asked about playing in his hometown. “I’ve got a bunch of family and friends coming to watch the games. It should be fun.”
The Alberta faction also includes Kai Uchacz (De Winton), Michael Horon (Lethbridge), Matthew Wedman (Edmonton), Jared Davidson (Edmonton), Matthew Rempe (Calgary), Cade McNelly (Westlock), Zachary Ashton (Calgary), Tyrel Bauer (Calgary), and Blake Lyda (Edmonton).
Monday night the Thunderbirds will be in Calgary to play the Hitmen. That night will be special for Uchacz, who is from nearby De Winton.
Seattle’s 2018 first-round pick joined the Thunderbirds late last year but only played in games at home, in Portland, and up in Vancouver. This weekend will be his first experience back where he grew up while wearing a WHL sweater.
“As soon I saw the schedule come out, I was pretty pumped we were coming out there,” the 16-year-old Uchacz said. “It’s going to be good. Really excited to see my family again. My brother will come up to most of the games, as well as some buddies.”
Playing in front of family and friends can be a distraction for a young player.
Many of them, like Uchacz and Ciona, are playing and living away from home for the first time. Keeping an eye on who is in the stands could get in the way of the task at hand.
It’s something the young Thunderbirds are going to have to manage.
“For me, it’s just another hockey game,” Bauer said. “You have to go out there and do your job and all that stuff will come after. We all have strategies for how to deal with things like that and you just have to stay focused on the game.”
Bauer, 17, is in his second year with Seattle and has been on a long road trip before.
Last January the Thunderbirds skipped Alberta and trekked out to Saskatchewan and Manitoba for a slew of games. The weekend swing won’t be as grueling as that one but can benefit a team this early in the season.
Being on the bus and in hotels can bring a team together. It’s something Bauer and the Thunderbirds saw during that Saskatchewan trip.
“Last year is the perfect example,” Bauer said. “We came in and had a good swing, we made some good trades and came out the second half firing. We’re a young group, we’re still learning, and I think a little team bonding will be good for this group.”
Seattle heads into the trip after a win and while earning points in four straight games.
The timing could be perfect for a team riddled with inexperience, but the Thunderbirds will be facing stiff competition.
Friday in Red Deer they’ll face a Rebels team that has a losing record but have four wins in ten games. In Edmonton on Saturday Seattle will play an Oil Kings club that is in first place of the Central Division with an 8-1-3-0 record and have the league’s second-best penalty kill.
The Thunderbirds will have to play the type of game that got them a win over Prince Albert on Tuesday. There will be lessons to be learned, as there has been all year, and they’ll get to do it all in front of familiar faces.
“It’s always fun to go home, back to your roots,” Bauer said. “I’m excited.”