With the long wait to start the Western Hockey League (WHL) season finally over, Conner Roulette and Mekai Sanders are filled with excitement to get back playing.
The two will return along with the rest of the Seattle Thunderbirds to play the Spokane Chiefs in the season opener at 6:05 p.m. Friday, March 19, at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.
“It’s going to be an unreal feeling,” said Sanders, a 17-year-old forward from Gig Harbor, during a phone interview after a recent practice. “We’ve been out of the game for a while so we are eager and pumped up to get going again. …there’s a lot of energy and the boys are flying out there.”
No fans are allowed. Seattle plays again at 5:05 p.m. Saturday, March 20, against Portland, which will be shown on JOEtv (KZJO), channel 22 and cable 110.
The WHL shut down the 2019-2020 season due to COVID-19 last March. This 2020-2021 season normally would have started in September. League officials reduced it to a 24-game season with no playoffs. All games will be played against U.S. Division opponents, Spokane, Portland, Tri-City and Everett.
“It’s going to be over a year since we played our last game,” said Roulette, 17, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, during a phone interview. “That anticipation has just built up. I’m excited and everyone else is excited. We are going to go out there and play our best. We have all been waiting for it and it’s going to show on the ice with how excited we are and all of this time built up.”
It’s been tough for Sanders and Roulette to be away from the team for so long. Sanders spent some time in Wenatchee and Spokane to train with a few other players, do some weightlifting, shoot some pucks and play an occasional exhibition game.
“We all had our hopes up that the start date would change,” Sanders said about previous alerts with dates of when the season might get going. “It would be sad, but our coaches would check in with us. It was, ‘this sucks’ when the date was pushed back again, but we knew we needed to jump on the season as soon as we get a chance.”
Roulette spent a lot of time in Winnipeg, but when training opportunities shut down in that city, he and another teammate went to Edmonton where they were able to still train until that city shut things down as well in October. Prior to that, he was able to get some skate time.
Roulette said he looked forward to return to the ShoWare Center ice during his two-day drive with a teammate from Winnipeg to Kent.
“It feels good to get back,” Roulette said. “We got here and it’s great to practice again and get back after all of that time at home.”
After COVID-19 restrictions in the state eased, league officials decided to start up the season even without fans in an effort to give the junior players a chance to perform before NHL scouts. Roulette and Sanders are each eligible for the July 23-24 draft.
Roulette is ranked 31st among the top 32 prospects by NHL.com writer Mike G. Morreale.
“Roulette is a well-conditioned playmaker who plays a detailed game and can create scoring chances with his passing and hockey sense,” Morreale wrote.
Roulette, who scored 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) in 54 games as a WHL rookie last season, said he won’t let the pressure of a shortened season and high-draft rankings get to him.
“There is high expectation, and I want the best for myself,” Roulette said. “It doesn’t matter when I go or where I go, what matters is how much I improve. I’m excited about it, but I’ve got to focus on getting better and focus on this short season before anything to do with the draft.”
Sanders, who missed the first 34 games of last season with an injury, couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like if the expansion Seattle Kraken were to draft him.
“That would be unreal,” Sanders said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to stay in Seattle. When the Kraken started forming, it’s always been a thought in the back of my head. It would be a crazy feeling.”
Meanwhile, back to this season, Sanders said he will miss playing without fans in the arena, but plans to keep that from impacting his play.
“I think obviously our fans have always been good to us and we love our fans, but it’s still going to be the same game,” Sanders said. “We have to focus on what’s going on on the ice and not what’s going on in the stands.”