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Former Thunderbirds Jerret Smith and Rylan Toth flying high with UBC

Former Seattle captain Jerret Smith now plays for the UBC Thunderbirds who are playing for the Canada West Title (Rich Lam/UBC)

While their sweaters are different colors and the logo on the crest is different than what they wore in Seattle, Jerret Smith and Rylan Toth are still Thunderbirds.

The two former Seattle Thunderbirds are playing with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and both had a hand last weekend in steering their new team to the Canada West Finals for the first time since 1978. To get there, they had to upset the University of Alberta who was the number one team in the country and the tournament’s top seed.

“They’re a very good team with a lot of good players,” Smith said earlier this week. “They came out hard and pushed us hard. It was really cool to get the win against them.”

With the win, UBC moves on to play the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for the Championship.

Smith is the Thunderbirds captain — like he was in Seattle — and the defenseman won Game 1 against Alberta with an overtime goal. Meanwhile, Toth made 51 saves in that game and followed up with a 40-save effort in the Game 3 clincher to earn U Sports Canada’s male athlete of the week award.

Toth played in some big games during his time in the WHL with the Red Deer Rebels and the Seattle Thunderbirds, including back-to-back years at the Memorial Cup. That experience helped him last weekend.

“You just try and use what you’ve learned over that time to help in the situation you’re in now,” Toth said. “It’s a lot of emotions going on, you try to keep them in check and try to realize it’s just another game. Just try to give the guy’s a chance.”

Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) hockey is where many former WHLers end up when their playing careers are finished.

American schools in the NCAA don’t allow for players who have appeared in the WHL to play but that doesn’t mean that hockey in the CIS isn’t good. Nearly every roster in CIS is loaded with former WHL players who play a strong brand of hockey.

The same Alberta team that UBC beat had knocked off top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA earlier in the year during an exhibition game.

“I think people who don’t know a lot about the league would be impressed,” Toth said about CIS. “If they came to a game, they would realize its pretty good hockey. I think the biggest difference is the top end guys have obviously moved on to pro hockey so there’s no Mat Barzal’s but there’s still a lot of skill and a lot of good hockey.”

There’s also a lot of familiarities.

The upset of Alberta meant both Smith and Toth had to go through a couple of old teammates.

Former Seattle captain Nolan Volcan plays for Alberta as does goalie Matt Berlin — both Smith and Toth played with the two. To win the Canada West title they’ll have to go through the Saskatchewan Huskies with Taran Kozun — who Smith played with at Seattle — and Donovan Neuls.

“That’s a cool thing about the league,” Toth said. “Pretty much every team has guys you played with or against. After the game, you shake hands and you’re still buddies. I don’t think it gets quite as heated as a seven-game series in the WHL. But three games in three nights was still tough.”

Another former Seattle Thunderbird, Jarret Tyszka, is in his rookie season with UBC and while not a teammate of Smith’s or Toth, Noah Philp was also on the Alberta team recently dispatched.

The win for UBC was one of the biggest in school history and both guys see some parallels to their Seattle days.

Smith was part of a Seattle team that hadn’t been to the WHL Championship since 1997. His last season in the WHL, Seattle made it to the final 2016 series but would lose to the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games. Toth joined the club the next year and won 36 games, only to get injured before the playoffs. He missed the playoffs but was healthy enough to appear in two Memorial Cup games.

Those experiences have them excited to do something special for their school.

“It’s kind of cool,” Smith said. “I know that in Seattle before I got there, they had a long streak of not making it there. Hopefully we can go further and finish it off, we didn’t get to finish it my last year.”

Smith, 24, is in his fourth season with UBC and is studying finance. He’s hoping to pursue a pro hockey career, with some potential in Europe, when he’s done with school. He says that he still follows how the Seattle Thunderbirds are doing and stays in touch with his billets and some friends who make their way to Vancouver to see UBC games.

Many players in the CIS end up playing for schools in or near their hometowns. Smith grew up in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, but Toth is from Saskatoon.

“I’d never really been out west for very long,” Toth said of his decision to go to UBC. “I really did like it in Seattle and when I saw UBC and the campus it seemed like a good fit. It was definitely a tough decision because you live away from home for seven years and to have that option to go back and live at home would have been great. It came down to I wanted to have a chance to play right away. If I had gone to play for the Huskies I’d be playing behind a couple of goalies.”

Toth will be back home in Saskatchewan starting Friday night as his UBC Thunderbirds try for another upset as the best-of-three kicks off. Win or lose the Thunderbirds have qualified for Canada’s national tournament later in the month.

But for now, they’re taking it one banner at a time.

“We just need to play the same way we played last weekend,” Smith said about the challenge ahead. “They’re another good team, playing the top two teams in the league is tough for us but if we keep playing the same way, we’ll be alright.”