The Seattle Thunderbirds landed in Regina on Wednesday afternoon and found themselves in somewhat familiar territory.
Not only is it the club’s second straight trip the WHL Final but for several players on the roster, it’s a homecoming of sorts. The Thunderbirds have six players on their roster who call Saskatchewan home.
For those players, not only is getting back to finals exciting, but getting to play the Regina Pats on such a big stage in front of family and friends is icing on the cake.
“I can’t even describe it,” said Grenfell, Sask. native Donovan Neuls. “I just hope that we can finish what we left last year.”
Grenfell is just less than 130 kilometers from Regina, and Neuls expects family and friends to make the 1.5-hour drive to see him play the Pats in Games 1 and 2. The Pats sold out Game 1 in about two minutes, and Neuls says his folks did not get tickets.
He went on to say that the team was going to take care of his parents so there will be some friendly faces in the Brandt Centre’s stands.
“This is as close as it gets and I’m just going to try and limit the distractions and focus on hockey,” Neuls said. “I can visit with them after. They know that I’m there to play hockey and they’re just going to be there to cheer me on. I love the support.”
After a season spent far away at home, it can become a distraction for young players to get a bit of the home feeling. Seeing friends and family can be a distraction.
Head coach Steve Konowalchuk is aware of it and says it’s something they prepare the team for.
“We talk about it all year and in the playoffs we kind of have a playoff policy that we have in place as far as family and when you can talk to them,” Konowalchuk said. “Your family is your hockey team and the players on the team. So we’ll talk about that and they’re excited but they also have to prepare like it’s just another game.”
The town of Yorkton, Sask. is just more than a two-hour, 187-kilometer drive from Regina. It’s also the hometown of defenseman Turner Ottenbreit.
The 19-year-old veteran is also making his second WHL Final appearance close to home.
“It’s so exciting,” Ottenbreit said. “Even last year in Brandon, that’s not too far. To get to play Brandon and now Regina, to have that support is huge.”
Being that close to Regina, you would think that the locals are throwing their support behind the Pats, who haven’t been this far since 1984.
But it turns out rooting for one of their own might be forefront in this series. A local steak house, Mr. Mikes, ran a promotion earlier in the week to win two tickets to Game 1 and cheer the hometown Ottenbreit on.
Ottenbreit says he’s familiar with the restaurant and has dined there on a few occasions.
“It’s obviously very cool,” Ottenbreit said. “To have the community get behind you and support you is always very nice. It’s exciting.”
Along with Neuls and Ottenbreit, the Saskatchewan T-Birds contingent includes Ethan Bear (Ochapowace), Rylan Toth (Saskatoon), Zack Andrusiak (Yorkton) and Tyler Adams (Regina).
All six of these players have the extra motivation of winning the championship in front of friends and family. If Seattle is able to pull off the victory, you have to wonder if Mr. Mikes will chip in for steaks on the house.