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Hockey is a family affair for Thunderbirds rookie Matthew Rempe

Seattle Thunderbirds center Matthew Rempe is off to a strong start of his WHL career. (Brian Liesse/ T-Birds)

The first thing you notice watching Seattle Thunderbirds rookie Matthew Rempe play hockey is his height.

Rempe, 17, is tall. Taller than any Thunderbird before him.

The center from Calgary stands at 6-foot-8 inches tall and that’s without skates. That height was to his advantage in a game against the Tri-City Americans in December when he broke behind the defense alone. His shot was stopped by Tri-City goalie Beck Warm, but the puck laid in the crease, inches from the goal line.

Rempe’s momentum carried him into the boards behind the net but he stretched his frame to its limits to reach back and poke the puck in before Warm or the Tri-City defense could clear it to safety.

“I had the Go-Go Gadget arm sticking out,” Rempe says about the goal, with a chuckle.

But Rempe is more than just a tall player.

Since returning to the Seattle lineup after a preseason injury, he’s played well. He’s been physical, he’s shown he can skate and has contributed offensively, scoring five times with 13 assists in 22 games.

He’s made an impact.

“There’s no fear to his game, there’s no hesitation,” Thunderbirds coach Matt O’Dette says about the rookie. “He’s always hunting that puck and always finishing his checks, creating havoc on the ice. That makes room for himself and for his linemates. He’s done that for himself and I think he’s created some chemistry with his linemates.”

Undrafted, Rempe had a strong showing in training camp last year.

He lasted through the preseason and was one of Seattle’s final cuts just prior to the season starting. He would end up playing with the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I learned what I needed to work on, in my game,” Rempe says about playing in Spruce Grove. “I got a lot of ice there and it helped me develop my game a lot. I knew what I needed to work on in camp this year to make the team and be good player.”

During last year’s camp, Rempe had a loud and enthusiastic cheering section during scrimmages.

Like a lot of Canadian kids, hockey played a big role in Rempe’s family and leading the cheers at the ShoWare Center were his older, twin sisters, Stephanie and Alexandra.

Both of Rempe’s sisters, who are four-years his senior, know a thing about playing hockey themselves. The two played NCAA hockey at Brown University, Stephanie on defense and Alexandra at center like her brother.

“I played hockey because they played hockey,” Rempe says.

Their support didn’t stop at last year’s training camp and he says that his sisters continue to cheer him on with the Thunderbirds.

“They’ve been coming (to games), they were in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat and a couple of games here,” Rempe says. “They had these cutout heads of me and were cheering louder than anyone. I love it, it’s huge. They’re such good supporters, it’s awesome. If you have a bad game, they’re there to comfort you and if you have a great game, they’re pumping my tires.”

That bond was crucial as the Rempe family suffered through a recent tragedy.

In February of 2018, Rempe’s father, Ron Rempe, an engineer in Calgary, suffered a heart attack and passed away leaving the family devastated. He was survived by the three children and his wife, Janice.

“He was my best friend,” Rempe says about his father. “He was a great guy. That was a big loss. It was hardest on my Mom.”

Hockey has helped the healing process.

Rempe was playing for the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C. at the time of his father’s passing and getting back to the ice meant a lot.

“After a week back home, I was back in Penticton and had my team there,” he says. “There was huge support. Going to the rink every day and getting into a rhythm really helped. Hockey was something I could put my mind into and take away a bit of that grief.”

While that grief will most likely never completely go away, he was determined to get back to training camp and make the Thunderbirds roster during this past fall’s training camp.

That plan hit a snag at the end of this preseason as he suffered an injury that caused him to miss Seattle’s first 15 games.

“That sucked,” he says. “I was having a good preseason and got injured in the last preseason game. But again, it’s a learning thing, you take it for granted when you’re playing.”

Since coming back, he’s made up for lost time.

He’s given the Thunderbirds another option at center, meshing with wingers Andrej Kukuca and Conner Bruggen-Cate in the past few games. He has skill and is not afraid of the physical aspect of the game.

In fact, he relishes playing physically.

“I’ve always tried to play like that,” he says, “More since I’ve been putting on more weight. I’m still a stick but less of a stick than I was a few years ago. This league is much more physical, which I love. You’re battling everywhere. Going to the net, you have to fight for every inch. It’s a much faster league and I enjoy it.”

The combination of his skill, skating, and willingness to throw a check is garnering attention from NHL scouts during what is his draft-eligible season.

It didn’t take long for him to have meetings set up after games with scouts for quick, get to know you, sessions.

“I think you’re always looking for those big right shot centermen, especially in the pros, they’re rare,” O’Dette says. “Having that reach and that skating ability allows you to do a bunch of different things. Protect the puck, control the puck. Defensively you’ve got that reach to take away time and space. It’s just a nice asset to have and I think he’s used his body to his advantage.”

Rempe, like every player in the WHL, has pro aspirations and he grew up a fan of Anaheim Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf thanks to a hockey card a coach gave him when he was younger. He would go to Calgary Hitmen games growing up, dreaming that someday he’d play in the WHL before moving on to the pro ranks.

But he’s not worried about that now. It will all take care of itself.

“I just try to go out and play as hard as I can,” Rempe says. “If things happen, things happen but I don’t think about that. I just try to get better every game.”