Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: Keep the enemy closer

It's not often you will find Portland fans saying anything about the Seattle Thunderbirds that doesn't involve a four letter word, but let's face it: they have earned their place in the Memorial Cup. After capturing their second consecutive WHL Western Conference title, they made history when they won their first-ever WHL Championship. It's even more epic when you remember that last year, they wre eliminated from the WHL finals by the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Seattle Thunderbirds aren't just representing the league at the Cup: they are also representing the Western Conference and the U.S Division. They will be smarter and stronger for it next season, which is exactly why I'm keeping our chief U.S. Division rival closer. 

Don't we know you? Steve Konowalchuk has been the head coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds since 2011. He played in Portand from 1990 - 1992 before moving on to an NHL career with the Washington Capitals and the Colorado Avalanche. I had just returned home from college when he joined the Winterhawks, so I can't speak with total expertise about his time here. What I do know is that the team he coaches today has some serious talent hiding underneath the physical, hard-checking game Seattle is known for. Erie Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch guided the Kootenay Ice to the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2011 and he has since emerged as a top junior hockey coach. To get there, the Ice had to get past the Portland Winterhawks, who had just won their first Western Conference title under head coach Mike Johnston. Game 2 of that WHL Championship series is still legendary in Portland to this day. Coach Johnston described it to  me afterwards as being "like watching three different games" and that's exactly what it was. 

My tablet is not letting me embed a link, so you can watch Game 2 highlights here: http://winterhawks.com/video/finals-game-2-portland-vs-kootenay-may-7-2011

MVP status: Former Portland Winterhawk Taylor Peters once tole me that "you have to take every team in this league seriously because they are all too good."  No matter where I go to cover a game, I always remember that. Seattle is no exception. Exhibit A: Captain and WHL Championship MVP Mathew Barzal, drafted 16th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders. I rest my case. If you have heard of him but never seen him play, trust me when I say the hype is real. I've seen it up close and the boy is the real deal. 

Secret weapons: The Seattle Thunderbirds cannot live on Mathew Barzal alone. Other players to watch include Keegan Kolesar, Ryan Gropp, Alexander True, Scott Eansor, Ethan Bear, Nolan Volcan and goalie Carl Stankowski.

The future is now: The Seattle Thunderbirds have three players listed by NHL Central Scouting in their final rankings for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. You may not know their names yet, but you soon will: Jarret Tyszka (#41), Sami Moilanen (#110) and Matthew Wedman (#210).

Rise to the occasion:  It doesn't matter which bench a player sits on, it is our privilege to watch them devleop into NHL-ready players, who -- if they are very lucky -- will actually sign a deal and play in the majors. Of course I wish the Portland Winterhawks were at the Memorial Cup instead, but that wasn't in the cards this year. It's Seattle's turn this year. They earned it. This post-season I'm choosing to put aside the rivalry and see the bigger picture. The Seattle Thunderbirds are the WHL's representative in the biggest junior hockey tournament of the year, next to the World Juniors.The hockey world is watching; so am I. Lest Portland should think I've totally gone to the dark side, think about it this way:

Keep the enemy closer:  You don't need to live out here in the Northwest to understand the rivalry between Portland and Seattle. Just look at the penalties after any game, where you will find a minimum of one unsportsmanlike conduct, about a half dozen roughing penalties and at least one set of matching majors for fighting. If it's really a bad night, you'll see a bench minor to the coaches. My point is this: Whatever happens in Windsor over the next week, the Seattle Thunderbirds who return next season will a stronger, smarter team for it. The respect I'm paying to Seattle now is well-deserved because they earned it. But it's also my way of keeping the enemy closer. Less than five months from now, Seattle will go right back to being our archrival. Put simply, if we all pay close attention now, it will pay off later; for fans, for coaches and most importantly for the Porltand Winterhawks themselves. 

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com