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Top draft pick Barzal to make his Thunderbirds debut Saturday | WHL
The Seattle Thunderbirds knew exactly where to spend their No. 1 draft pick for the coming Western Hockey League season: a 16-year-old from Canada named Mathew Barzal.
Barzal will open the Thunderbirds' season Saturday night against the Portland Winterhawks at the ShoWare Center in Kent (7:05 face-off) as their rookie center and hot No. 1 pick from the league's 2012 Bantam Draft. Officials expect him to be a highly desired player when he breaks into the NHL in a few years.
"It was really exciting for me and my family," Barzal said after a recent practice about coming to the T-Birds. "Seattle's a good location and it's pretty close to home, so my family can come see me every once in a while."
The soft spoken, 16-year-old Canadian moved south from his hometown of Coquitlam, British Columbia, to join the Thunderbirds, leaving his school, friends and family behind.
"It's tough saying bye to them," he said.
While Barzal's sad to leave his hometown, he said that it's only natural to be moved around and he's excited to be launching his career.
"Obviously, at one point in a hockey career you gotta move away from home, and I'm excited for that," he said.
While he's staying with Stephanie and Guillauime Provost in Kent, the separation from family has been a little tough. The first several weeks were all right as he got used to not having them around, he said, but eventually it started to wear on him.
"After that point you start feeling like you know you're away from home, and you start missing them a lot more," Barzal said. He added he's adjusting well and loves life in Kent with the Thunderbirds.
It hasn't been without a few changes, particularly cultural differences between the United States and Canada. Specifically: less hockey. While hockey is a major sport in Canada, far fewer students are aware of it in the states, and similarly, he's not as familiar with football as some of his classmates at Kentwood High School in Covington.
"Up in Canada everyone knows who Sidney Crosby (captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins) is, and I asked a couple kids at school if they knew Sidney Crosby, and they had no idea," Barzal said.
While the Thunderbirds offer college scholarships to players who don't go pro after the WHL, Barzal plans to enter the NHL.
"Ever since I was a little kid it's what I've wanted to do," he said.
Barzal has been playing hockey ever since his father signed him up for children's leagues. He said that he's most inspired by Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Barzal said he specifically looks up to Toews's clean attitude and behavior both on and off the ice and his leadership of the team.
"Obviously, if I could be a hockey player that'd be one guy I'd really want to play like," Barzal said.
His favorite moment of a game? Scoring. "It's the best feeling when the crowd gets up and especially when it's a big goal, you know OT, late in the third, you're hot, you're tired, you win," he said. "There's honestly no feeling like it."
With a league record for assists in Vancouver youth leagues and more than 200 points between the last two years, he's set to bring that feeling to the Thunderbirds – and their fans – on a regular basis.
T-Birds at a glance
Last year: The Thunderbirds placed 7th in the Western Hockey League's Western Conference, with 24 wins and 38 losses, and advanced to the playoffs.
Top returning players: Left wing Roberts Lipsbergs, right wing Connor Honey, and defenseman Shea Theodore were top scorers for the Thunderbirds with 58, 54, and 50 points scored respectively. They are all back this year.
Goalie change: Goalie Danny Mumaugh will take over for Brandon Glover, who graduated from the league last year with an 89 percent of goal shots saved. Mumaugh's only spent a fourth as much time on the ice, but has still managed to hold a solid 87 percent save ratio.