Despite losing numerous top players too old to still play in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and/or heading off to the NHL, the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds are confident they can defend the WHL title.
“We know going into every game teams are going to want to take us down,” said center Sam Popowich, according to a WHL video interview. “How we look at it is we are going to come into every game trying to defend this thing.
“I think it’s a challenge to everybody on our team, especially the older guys who have been there and have kind of seen what it takes. We’re going to take it with a lot of pride and it’s something that we’re 100% looking to do again.”
The junior league features players ages 16 to 20, most with hopes to one day play in the NHL. Last season’s Seattle team featured 10 players selected in the NHL Draft and many of those are gone. But this year’s roster has seven drafted players, including six taken in the 2023 draft in June, the most of any WHL team.
Those seven are:
• Jordan Gustafson, center, 3rd-round pick 2022 by Las Vegas Golden Knights
• Nico Myatovic, left wing, 2nd-round pick 2023 by Anaheim Ducks
• Gracyn Sawchyn, center, 2nd round pick 2023 by Florida Panthers
• Jeremy Hanzel, defenseman, 3rd round pick 2023 by Colorado Avalanche
• Kevin Korchinski, defenseman, 1st round pick 2022 by Chicago Blackhawks
• Sawyer Mynio, defenseman, 3rd round pick 2023 by Vancouver Canucks
• Scott Ratzlaff, goalie, 5th round pick 2023 by Buffalo Sabres
There’s a chance a couple of the drafted players could make the NHL this season. But the T-Birds are pretty loaded with talent again.
“We’re getting our guys ready to defend the championship,” said Seattle coach Matt O’Dette, according to a WHL video. “It’s obviously a younger group so we’re evaluating our guys. We have a lot of youthful energy. We are excited for our guys returning, and guys returning and stepping into bigger roles, and we’re excited for our young guys breaking into the league.”
Seattle lost 5-0 to the Quebec Remparts in the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) Memorial Cup championship game June 4, 2023 in Kamloops, British Columbia. Prior to the loss, however, the T-Birds set a franchise record with 54 wins in the regular season. They won the U.S. Division of the WHL and captured the WHL title. They had never played for the Memorial Cup title in two previous trips. The Memorial Cup determines the top team among the 60 CHL clubs.
If the T-Birds win back-to-back WHL championships, they would be the first team to accomplish that since Kamloops in 1994 and 19915, according to the CHL.ca website.
Key additions include speedy forward Braeden Cootes and off-season acquisitions Luca Hauf (left wing) and Trey Patterson (defenseman), according to CHL.ca.
Unlike last season, Seattle didn’t make the CHL preseason Top-10 Rankings. The ranked WHL clubs include Portland at No. 3, Moose Jaw at No. 5 and Saskatoon at No. 9.
The T-Birds will find out right away how they stack up against Portland in their home opener at 6:05 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30 at the accesso ShoWare Center.
Seattle opens the season Saturday, Sept. 23 at the Wenatchee Wild, which joined the WHL this year.