The Thunderbirds’ new head coach, Matt O’Dette, looks to pick up where his predecessor, Steve Konowalchuk, left off as the Western Hockey League champions begin the 2017-18 regular season. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, T-Birds

New coach, new season for Thunderbirds

O’Dette takes the helm as WHL champions return to the ice

After winning their first Western Hockey League (WHL) championship last season, the Seattle Thunderbirds have a new look.

One of those changes is head coach Matt O’Dette, who replaces Steve Konowalchuk, who joined the Anaheim Ducks as an assistant coach in June.

O’Dette, 41, is a familiar face in the organization, having coached the T-Birds defense since 2013. He makes his head coaching debut Saturday when the T-Birds open the season against the Tri-City Americans at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent. Face-off is 7:05 p.m.

“Anytime you are a coach you want to keep moving up the ladder,” O’Dette said of his promotion. “Becoming a head coach in this league was a logical step for me, and there is no place I would rather do it than here. I think the organization is top of the line. Obviously, the area, our facilities here are incredible. It is just a perfect scenario for me to be in.”

Prior to joining the T-Birds, O’Dette was the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey) for two seasons. Before that, he was an assistant coach and assistant general manager for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder.

The Ontario, Canada, native played professional hockey for 14 years in the American Hockey League (AHL) and the ECHL. Before joining the professional ranks, O’Dette was a defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League – one of three teams, that along with the WHL, make up the Canadian Hockey League.

O’Dette retired in 2010 and began his coaching career.

“It all contributed to me being where I am today,” he said of his experience as a player. “Just being involved in the game and learning as I go, it has brought me here. … I don’t miss playing. I played a long time. When the body says enough’s enough, it’s enough. I am happy to not be taking the hits, getting hitting in the face. I am happy to be behind the bench. It’s a different dynamic. You get to pass your knowledge on to the kids. It’s a transition I was definitely ready to do.”

Spending several years working with Konowalchuk helped O’Dette’s transition to head coach.

“We have the same philosophies and blueprints of what we think works,” O’Dette said. “Obviously, it worked for us last year, so there is not a whole lot of change that is necessary. We want to keep evolving with the way the game is being played now days, which is something we are always going to try to do.”

This season will require some rebuilding, as many of the team’s core players – including Scott Eansor, Ryan Gropp, Mathew Barzal, Alexander True and Keegan Kolesar – have moved on from the team, prospects who were either drafted by an NHL club or assigned to another league or an association for further development. The WHL is open to players age 16 to 20.

“Obviously, we want to be a contender for a championship,” O’Dette said. “That is always going to be a goal. We just want to make sure we are moving in that direction, whether it happens this year or the year after or the year after that. We just want to make progress become better everyday. I think our first goal would be to make the playoffs and then go from there.”

The championship with the T-Birds last season was O’Dette’s first as a player or coach.

“It was amazing just to see the path that we took and being with those core guys for four years,” he said. “It was a culmination of years of work, and it was nice to see all that hard work get rewarded. It is not easy to win a championship and everything kind of fell into place for us. I think it is something that none of us will forget.”

O’Dette is looking forward to the season.

“It is unbelievable to play in front of our fans here in Kent,” he said. “The support is phenomenal. It was nice to get a championship for them and defend that championship in front of them this year.”

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