With the WHL championship already in hand, the Seattle Thunderbirds are off to chase junior hockey’s biggest prize at the Memorial Cup.
The four-team round-robin tournament kicks off Saturday in Kamloops, British Columbia, with the host Kamloops Blazers, champions of three Canadian hockey leagues, out on the field.
The Thunderbirds defeated the Winnipeg Ice in the WHL Championship Series to advance to the Memorial Cup. They will be joined by the Peterborough Pats, who won the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) crown, and the Quebec Ramparts, who won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) title.
Head coach Matt Odette said the team is excited. “We’re not satisfied. Obviously, we’re happy with our championship, but there’s more to win, and to win the Memorial Cup and end on that note would be incredible.”
Of the 60 teams that make up the CHL, Seattle is one of only four teams competing for the top club-level prize in junior hockey. This is the third trip to the Memorial Cup for the Thunderbirds. They earned a spot by winning the WHL title in 2017 and also served as the host team for the 1992 tournament at the Seattle Center Coliseum (now Climate Pledge Arena).
“It’s an amazing tournament,” defenseman Luke Prokop said. “You know, there’s a lot of media buzz around it and a lot of fans from all over the country. It’s junior hockey and a spectacle and it’s a great tournament and a great time of year to play.”
Prokop is the only member of the team to have played in the Memorial Cup before. Prokop and forward Dylan Guenther were part of the Edmonton Oil Kings team that defeated Seattle in last year’s WHL championship to earn a bid to the tournament. However, Guenther was injured in the series against the Thunderbirds and was unable to play in the Memorial Cup.
Edmonton was unable to advance past the round-robin stage without Guenther’s availability. Both Prokop and Guenther were traded to Seattle that season as the Thunderbirds were loaded to chase the WHL title.
“It’s a dream for a junior player like that to get a chance to play in that and it’s a different style,” Guenther said.
“I know he’s pumped,” Prokop said of Guenther. “He was a huge part of our team last year, probably our best forward, most talented forward, and for him to go out in the final like that, you could see in his face how bad he was to be out there. Kind of wanted to. Even in the tournament, you saw him in the stands and he was kind of devastated and sad. He wasn’t playing, and couldn’t help the team out, especially because we were so good. They weren’t. So I know he’s excited to get his little bit of revenge, I guess, and get back to it.”
Unlike their Edmonton last year, the Thunderbirds enter the tournament healthy and on a roll. Jordan Gustafsson returned to the lineup for Seattle’s clinching Game 5 against Winnipeg after missing seven games with an injury. Assuming Gustafsson is in the lineup for the tournament, the Thunderbirds will have their full roster.
Seattle also ended its five-game winning streak over Winnipeg, while both Quebec and Peterborough needed six games to clinch the league title. That gave the Thunderbirds a few days of extra rest before traveling to Kamloops.
“We’re very fortunate to have some of those advantages,” goaltender Thomas Malik said. “Not only getting healthy but having a few extra days with our series only five games and then having the tournament in the western part of the country. We’re definitely going to use that to our advantage.”
Seattle went through the WHL playoffs en route to the Ed Chinnoth Cup. It took just 19 games for the Thunderbirds to reach the 16-win total needed to clinch the title. They completed back-to-back sweeps of the Kelowna Rockets and Prince George Cougars to reach the conference finals, where they met the Blazers. Kamloops managed a pair of victories against Seattle but fell in six games.
After losing Game 1 of the championship series in Winnipeg 3–2, Seattle won four straight to win the WHL crown.
“We really bonded as a team and became brothers in that group,” center Jared Davidson said. “So being able to get that bond is really important to your playing style and it’s like peaking at the right time.”
“When you come so close last year, it’s heartbreaking,” added winger Reid Shaffer. “Going into this last offseason and we knew what we wanted. We built a team around a championship team, and we went for it, that’s what we did here.”
The Thunderbirds bring arguably the most talented team to Kamloops as well. Seattle has 10 players on their roster who have already been drafted by NHL teams, including five first-round picks in Guenther, forwards Brad Lambert and Reid Shaffer, and defensemen Kevin Korchinski and Nolan Allen. . An additional six players are among the top North Rich by NHL Central Scouting.