Pursuing their dream on ice: Teens learn to balance school and a new home while skating for the T-Birds

In goal, the Thunderbirds’ Danny Mumaugh blocks a shot during a recent Western Hockey League game at the ShoWare Center. Mumaugh, who grew up in Colorado, is living with a host family in Maple Valley and attends Kentwood High School.  Mumaugh is adjusting to a busy schedule that includes honing his hockey skills in the junior ranks.  - Courtesy photo/Kyle Scholzen, Thunderbirds
In goal, the Thunderbirds’ Danny Mumaugh blocks a shot during a recent Western Hockey League game at the ShoWare Center. Mumaugh, who grew up in Colorado, is living with a host family in Maple Valley and attends Kentwood High School. Mumaugh is adjusting to a busy schedule that includes honing his hockey skills in the junior ranks.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/Kyle Scholzen, Thunderbirds

That evening, Danny Mumaugh was supposedly doing homework. Walking upstairs to check in on him at their Centennial, Colo., home, his dad discovered him watching hockey highlights online. But Mumaugh's dad just couldn't get upset.

"That's where I want to play," he said, "in the Western Hockey League."

Little Taylor Green slipped on his "skaty socks" and positioned his net in the living room of his Port Coquitlam, British Columbia home. But something was missing. Green dragged his baby sister into the goal and lined up a shot.

"My mom would yell at me, and I would have to bring her out," Green said.

Two boys living thousands of miles apart shared one dream: to play professional hockey. And as Seattle Thunderbirds playing in Kent, they now share more than just a dream.

"Our rooms are right next to each other and the bathroom in the middle adjoins (them)," said Mumaugh. "So we're constantly together."

Mumaugh and Green live in the same billet house owned by Bob and Val Merriman. Living with billets is equivalent to living with a host family. With the exception of checking in for dinner, the boys keep to their own schedules and come and go as they please.

Outside of the rink, the boys live pretty normal lives. Like most teenagers, waking up for class can be the hardest part of the day. Jumping on Highway 18, each player can make it to Kentwood High School in no time from the Merriman's house in Maple Valley. But unlike other students, school could start at 8 a.m. or even 11 a.m. depending on how many classes the boys must take to complete their credits.

Having the extra time doesn't make balancing school and sports any easier, though, but a good home life does help.

"If you have a test and you were playing the night before, it can be tough," Green said, "but it's never tough to come home to the billets. I have a great billet family so it's always nice to reset there."

In the four years the Merrimans have hosted Thunderbirds, they've secured a routine and split the responsibilities of taking care of their boys.

Except minimal trash and laundry, the players aren't made to do chores. In the evenings, a nutritious dinner is always the goal, but come pregame meals, Bob knows exactly what the boys crave most.

"They love to eat their pastas ... lasagna (or) sometimes a pot of spaghetti," Bob said.

For Mumaugh, a protein drink with a scoop of ice cream is a great snack in between meals, too.

Around 2 p.m. practice begins at the ShoWare Center, and as the boys don their four or more layers of gear and step onto the ice, the transformation from normal teenager to professional hockey player begins.

The bright lights illuminate the entire rink, leaving the stands in shadows. The chilled air muffles their speech while masking the faint smell of sweat. A player falls chest down on the ice, slush covering his grey and navy jersey. Hockey sticks continuously clack, clack, clack against one another, as players fight for the chance to land one between the pipes.

"In Canada, young boys would kill to be in the position that we're in," Green said. "Just being able to go onto the ice every night ... it's just a lot of fun."

Born to play

From day one, Green pursued hockey over every other sport. Breathing heavily after practice, he explains that as soon as he could walk, he could skate. With a smile bridging ear to ear, he tells how shocked he was to be 15 years old and drafted right out of rookie camp in the second round as the 26th overall pick. After that, his skills on ice have only improved.

Green's a defenseman, but his good hockey sense allows him to play forward as well, making his skills diverse.

"He's smart on the ice," said Steve Konowalchuk, Thunderbirds head coach. "Good hands ... good vision. That's what's gonna make him a successful player in this league."

Factor in his height at about 6 feet, 9 inches with skates on, Green believes he's a good size for this "big man sport."

Mumaugh grew up within five minutes of an ice rink in Colorado. His dad, a season ticket holder, would take him to the NHL Avalanche games at an early age. Sitting back in his chair, Mumaugh remembers the day his dad pulled up in the car after hockey practice to reveal a "G" next to his name on the team roster.

"My dad always knew I wanted to be a goalie," Mumaugh said. "(Since then) I never looked back."

Put in the lineup halfway through the season, Mumaugh was confident enough to jump right in with the rest of the players. And being only 16 years old, his hard work and competitive attitude is a testament to his love of the game.

"He sure brings that fire, and that's contagious to the team," Konowalchuck said. "That's gonna push him to be a good goalie at this level."

Both boys agree that playing for the Thunderbirds creates a bond between teammates. Whether it's shouting your NHL fantasy draft picks on the bus to an away game, just hanging out at the mall or grabbing a bite to eat, the players spend most of their time together. Unfortunately, this doesn't leave a lot of time for outside friendships.

"I don't want to say there's not enough time to make friends," Mumaugh said, "but we never really have time to hang out with (other people)."

The boys were brought to Kent to play hockey, but the experience of playing in the WHL in the Pacific Northwest encompasses much more than just play time. As young men, they are living out their dreams, taking one step closer to their professional careers.

"He's had his sights set on this for so long," Mumaugh's dad said. "Seattle gave him a chance ... and (he) really wants to make it work (there.)"

Green's mom couldn't be more excited about her son living "a Canadian boy's dream." Although she still sees him as "her baby," his passion for the sport makes all the sacrifices worth it.

"To see him living (his dream) out at such a young long as he's happy, and it's going well, I'm happy," she said.


PHOTO BELOW: The Thunderbirds' Taylor Green is an imposing defenseman at 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Just 18 years old, Green hopes to blossom in the junior ranks. Courtesy photo, Kyle Scholzen, Thunderbirds

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