End of the jour­ney

Barzal and com­pany leave last­ing im­pres­sion on Seat­tle Thun­der­birds fran­chise

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY KYLE CICERELLA

When the Seat­tle Thun­der­birds fell 7-0 on Tues­day to the Saint John Sea Dogs at the Memo­rial Cup, it sig­nalled the last time the fran­chise’s core would play to­gether.

It’s the end of a four-year jour­ney for a group of teenagers now forced to take the next step in their ca­reers.

For­wards Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Kee­gan Kole­sar, Scott Ean­sor and de­fence­man Ethan Bear — all rook­ies with Seat­tle in 2013 — will be mov­ing on, with four full sea­sons of ju­nior un­der their belt.

“Af­ter we lost I was kind of hav­ing flash­backs from when I was 16 to now,” said Bear, an Oil­ers prospect. “Very sad, prob­a­bly the last day I’ll throw on the jersey with those guys.

“Proud of what we ac­com­plished, tough to go out the way we did. Been a long sea­son, went through a lot. I’m pretty happy with what we did.”

The fu­ture looks bright for the soon-to-be Thun­der­birds grad­u­ates.

In 2015, four of them had their named called at the NHL Draft, with Barzal lead­ing the way as the 16th-over­all pick by the Is­lan­ders. Gropp went 41st to the Rangers, Kole­sar 69th to Colum­bus and Bear 124th to Ed­mon­ton. Ean­sor, an over­ager who serves as Seat­tle co-cap­tain, is un­drafted but hop­ing to earn a con­tract. All five at­tended an NHL camp last fall.

But af­ter their sec­ond straight thump­ing at the four-team tour­na­ment for the big­gest tro­phy in ma­jor ju­nior hockey, the fu­ture was the last thing any of them were think­ing about.

“We ob­vi­ously had dif­fer­ent

plans for this tour­na­ment, not to score three goals and get outscored 18 to 3 or some­thing,” said Barzal.

“Hasn’t re­ally sunk in sea­son’s done yet, just hap­pened fast. In a day or two we’ll look

back, it’s pretty im­pres­sive to win the WHL (cham­pi­onship).”

In 2012-13, the Thun­der­birds fin­ished 24-38-10 and ex­ited the first round of the Western Hockey League play­offs. Seat­tle had used the 2012 ban­tam draft to stock up for the fu­ture, se­lect­ing Barzal, from Coquitlam, B.C., Gropp of Kam­loops, B.C., Win­nipeg’s Kole­sar and Bear, from Ochapowace, Sask., as 15-year-olds. Ean­sor, of En­gle­wood, Calif., signed a WHL con­tract in 2013 and the five joined the team for the very next sea­son.

Seat­tle never had a win­ning per­cent­age be­low .590 in the four sea­sons they were to­gether. They made two league cham­pi­onships, win­ning the fran­chise’s first in 2016-17 to reach the Memo­rial Cup, and their 98-point sea­son this year was the best since the 1989-90 squad.

Their im­pact on the team will be felt when they’re gone as the younger play­ers will have to step in to fill their skates.

Barzal (278) and Gropp (254) cracked the fran­chise’s top-10 all-time scor­ers, sixth and 10th re­spec­tively. Ean­sor, a leader of the group, served as cap­tain this year while Barzal was with the Is­lan­ders and ro­tated when he re­turned. Kole­sar fin­ished third on the team in goals de­spite miss­ing eight weeks with her­nia surgery and was their lead­ing scor­ing in the post­sea­son, while Bear won WHL de­fence­man of the year to cap his ca­reer.

“They’ve grown up with me as a coach, we’ve had our bat­tles and they’re good, young men,” said Seat­tle coach Steve Konowalchuk.

“I have re­spect for all of them. I’ll miss those guys. I hope our young guys learn from them.”

CP PHOTO

Seat­tle Thun­der­birds cen­tre Mathew Barzal (front) is pres­sured by Wind­sor Spit­fires cen­tre Lo­gan Brown dur­ing the first pe­riod of a Memo­rial Cup round-robin game in Wind­sor, Ont., on May 21.

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