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Cancellation of playoffs ends the WHL careers of Thunderbirds over-age players

Andrej Kukuca, along with the Thunderbirds other 20-year-olds, had their WHL careers end this week. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The original plan called for this week to be a busy one for the Seattle Thunderbirds and head coach Matt O’Dette but things changed quickly and in unprecedented ways.

Instead of practices and video reviews to prepare for a first-round playoff series, the season was put on pause and then canceled completely when the Western Hockey League, in coordination with the Canadian Hockey League, pulled the plug Monday in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that is spreading around the globe.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” O’Dette said Tuesday. “It seems like everything changed in the blink of an eye…I think ultimately our focus has been on making sure we’re doing the right things and making sure our players, staff, and everyone is healthy.”

His players all returned home safely as they, like the rest of us, wait out the impact of the virus.

Seattle was on the verge of clinching a playoff spot and would have opened the postseason with a matchup with the Portland Winterhawks or the Everett Silvertips had everything not been shut down. The Thunderbirds were a young and inexperienced group this year and playing in the playoffs would have been a learning experience.

“We were excited about the possibility of playing one of our rivals in the first round,” O’Dette said. “Obviously we know it would have been a tough challenge, but we were excited and looking forward to taking on that challenge. It would have been a great experience for our young guys to go through a playoff run.”

Not only will the young players miss out on that valuable experience, one O’Dette and the Thunderbirds hope will pay off over the next several years, but the cancellation brought about the end to the WHL careers of the club’s three overaged players.

Andrej Kukuca, Conner Bruggen-Cate, and Max Patterson all will graduate from the WHL this season without getting a proper send-off.

The three 20-year-olds were leaned on by O’Dette this season to teach and lead his younger charges.

“Our young guys, in the exit interviews, they all mentioned how our 20’s helped them and made them feel comfortable,” O’Dette said. “That’s what we want from our older guys.”

Andrej Kukuca

In his second season with the Thunderbirds, Kukuca led them in goals (26), assists (31), and points (57) and was the most consistent scorer on a team that struggled to score goals. He came to Seattle via the Import Draft in 2018, where the Thunderbirds took him in the first round out of Slovakia.

With Seattle, he played in 122 games and scored 51 goals while recording 114 points. In last season’s first-round playoff series with the Vancouver Giants, Kukuca scored four times with seven points in the six games.

In January of 2019, he represented his home country at the World Junior Championships played in Victoria and Vancouver.

Obviously a high-caliber goal scorer, O’Dette says Kukuca offered more than just offense, he led by example.

“The one thing about Andrej that can get lost with him is that he’s a very competitive kid,” O’Dette said. “A very team-oriented kid who very much wants to win. He gets frustrated and upset when we didn’t have success as a team. I thought that was a really good quality with him, he wasn’t always focused on his individual numbers, he wanted the team to win.”

Conner Bruggen-Cate

It would have been easy to shrug off Bruggen-Cate as a ‘throw in’ when Seattle acquired him as part of a big, four-player deal with the Kelowna Rockets last spring.

Bruggen-Cate headed to fall camp with the Thunderbirds unsure of where he would fit into what was a crowded group of 20-year-olds vying for three spots. It was not guaranteed he’d make the roster, but any doubts were put to rest quickly.

“He caught our attention very quickly in training camp,” O’Dette said. “What stood out for us right away was his style of play. He was more physical and competitive, a little bit more than we thought. He just played hard and had good habits. Credit to him for coming into a tough situation and earning that spot. The guys he was competing with were established T-Birds and well-liked players. He earned that spot.”

After playing 201 games with the Rockets, Bruggen-Cate suited up for 62 with the Thunderbirds this year and chipped in with 14 goals, the second-most in his career.

But his impact on the Thunderbirds had more to do than just goals and assists. Bruggen-Cate was an instant leader on the team and a positive role model for its young core. After the team traded away Matthew Wedman in November, it didn’t take long before Bruggen-Cate was named captain.

“You could see in the locker room he was kind of taking control of the team and the young guys were gravitating towards him,” O’Dette said. “His voice came to the forefront as far as leadership in our locker room. We thought over time that he deserved the captaincy and I thought he did a good job.”

Max Patterson

Patterson, who’s father Ed played for the Thunderbirds in the late 1980’s, joined the Thunderbirds in November after a trade with the Everett Silvertips.

He only played 34 games with Seattle but made his presence known from day one. He was physical, he gave the Thunderbirds a needed veteran presence at the center position, and welcomed a leadership role with the young club.

“From playing against him over the years, we weren’t surprised by that,” O’Dette said. “We respected the way he played, he played with those Thunderbirds qualities. He’s a guy that we had an eye on for years and wouldn’t have minded adding him to the team earlier then we got him. You don’t like playing against him and it was really nice to have him on our team.

“We heard about him before we got him, about how great of a kid he was and the leadership qualities he had. We saw that firsthand when he got to us.”

Patterson won a WHL Championship with the Swift Current Broncos in 2018 and ends his junior career playing in 320 games between Seattle, Everett, Swift Current, and Kootenay.

Matthew Wedman

While not with the Thunderbirds at the end of the season, Wedman had a major impact on the franchise during his playing career. Seattle traded him to Kelowna in November after he had played 275 games in a Thunderbirds sweater and was a member of the 2017 WHL Championship team.

“He meant a lot,” O’Dette said of his former captain. “He was a high draft pick for us, and he’s definitely come a long way with his development. He was a young, raw kid starting out and you could see that development each and every year. He worked at it and he was a guy that definitely exemplified the T-Bird identity. He grew into that year after year and earned his way into the captaincy.

“He can be proud of his career and its disappointing how it ended. He was set up to play in the Memorial Cup to send off his career, but he’s got a bright future transitioning into a pro game. He’s got the body, the frame, and skill set that will translate well into the pro level and it will be exciting to follow the progress in his pro career.”

Wedman was drafted by the NHL’s Florida Panthers last June and will look to continue his hockey career in the Panthers system next season. Overall, he scored 92 goals over his WHL career but none bigger than the double-overtime series winner he in 2016 that sent the Thunderbird to the second championship series in franchise history.

There were other former Thunderbirds who graduated from the WHL this week. In Swift Current, Jaxan Kaluski finished up his junior career while both Reece Harsch and Liam Hughes ended the season playing with the Winnipeg ICE.