When HF met with Keegan Kolesar in Kelowna, we were greeted with a smile and a friendly handshake. Thankfully for an aging scribe, it was much more pleasant than the manner in which the rambunctious Seattle Thunderbirds forward introduces himself to WHL opponents.
The burly 18-year-old, who was born in Brandon, Manitoba, is a presence at 6’2” and 217 pounds. He is as imposing as they come these days in the WHL, a willing battler who has significantly increased his productivity during the current campaign, his third full season with the Thunderbirds. Just a few short days ago, Kolesar collected the 100th point of his career, one that began with a decision to relocate south of the 49th parallel.
“It was different at first going to Seattle,” Kolesar said when asked about the move and his minor hockey days. “I’m maybe one of the guys (on the team) furthest away from home, other than our Europeans. That was tough at 16.
“I started playing hockey at a late age. I started in organized sports at about seven or eight years old. It was minor hockey in Winnipeg with the Stars, then the Winnipeg Hawks. It was from there that I was drafted. I played one year with the Winnipeg Thrashers, then on to Seattle in my 16-year-old year.”
Some of the key contributors in Kolesar’s development as a youngster in minor hockey include Jim Berezowsky, Rob Reimer, Doug Sinclair and Bruno Zarillo. He has also trained with Brandon-native and family friend, Ryan White, a former WHL player, 2006 NHL Draft selection, and current member of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Go West young man
The Thunderbirds chose Kolesar in the first round, 20th overall, at the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. It was exciting for he and his family, and over time, he has become more and more appreciative for the opportunity. He left home at a young age to pursue hockey and is quick to acknowledge input from players who had moved on ahead of him.
“I had guys throughout the league that had gone through the same things,” Kolesar said. “Justin Hamonic in Tri-City, he talked to me every once in awhile. We’d talk after games, just those times when maybe I needed anything.”
For the youngsters who cross the border to build on their hockey dreams, access to others from the same neck of the woods can be a godsend, and Tri-City has attracted many players over the years with roots in the Winnipeg area. The bruising Hamonic, who now toils with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL, is a 6’4”, 210-pound, right-shooting defenseman who played four years with the Americans without missing a regular season game during his final three seasons in the WHL.
Columbus comes calling
Selected in the third round, 69th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kolesar has been signed by that club. Other WHL players selected at the 2015 NHL Draft by Columbus are American-born forward Paul Bittner (2, 38th) of the Portland Winterhawks and Canadian defenseman Sam Ruopp (5, 129th) of the Prince George Cougars.
Kolesar, who was the only Manitoba-born player selected at the 2015 NHL Draft, signed his NHL entry-level contract with Columbus just prior to Christmas. Draft day was a special experience for Kolesar, but it didn’t get in the way of some important family time.
“Yeh, it was exciting,” Kolesar said. “I was in Brandon with my family. My brother had a baseball tournament and we were all getting ready to leave and still looking at the television a bit. Then my name popped up and I got the phone call. Everyone in the house was going crazy.
“I went to development camp the day after the draft, got there just in time to do a bunch of fitness testing and some skating. That was a fun time, then going into training camp I was fortunate to get into an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues. It was just unbelievable.
“Right now things aren’t going well for them (in Columbus) and I think they’re just trying to find the right pieces. They just acquired Seth Jones and I think that’s a step in the right direction. I’m not worried about myself in Columbus right now, but it is nice to get feedback from them and we’ll look to the future. It’s about Seattle this season. We’re in a bit of a slump, so we all need everyone focused here.”
Thunderbirds high expectations
The Thunderbirds roster this season boasts three other players selected at the 2015 NHL Draft. Forwards Mathew Barzal (NYI – 1,15th) and Ryan Gropp (NYR – 2, 41st), who are both signed to NHL contracts, along with Ethan Bear (EDM – 5, 124th), form the younger portion of the core in Seattle. Forward Scott Eansor, now 20, was a member of the bronze medal-winning Team USA at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Kolesar continues to establish himself as one of the WHL’s top power forwards. His offensive contributions have risen gradually, from a paltry six points as a rookie, to 38 points in his second season. This year, he has broken out with 30 goals and 30 assists in 58 games. He is quick to label it a team effort. He has become an important cog in the fortunes of the Thunderbirds, a team leader, a physical force and a consistent producer.
In an interview with Thunderbirds radio broadcast analyst Tim Pigulski, Kolesar said, “to go from the years I’ve had and beat my point totals from previous years is nice. It’s great to have personal success like that, but I have to give credit to my teammates. Not only my linemates Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal, but guys like Luke Osterman and Owen Seidel. Without them pounding down the defense, I can’t do the things late in the game like score or set up the game-winning goal.
“They knew my offensive totals would increase just based on the players I would be playing with. They said they want me to become a consistent player, work on my speed, agility, and quickness while still bringing that physical presence.”
Kolesar grinned when asked by this writer about his size and also to describe his skill set.
“I’ve always been one of the bigger guys, even in midget hockey,” he said. “I used to play football and some people find it odd that I quit football and chose hockey because of the genetic background of my family. I’m happy I chose hockey. I like to get in a guy’s face. I like going to the net hard and getting guys off their game the best I can.”
Athletic pedigree abounds in the Kolesar family. He is the son of Charles Peterson, a former professional baseball player who spent some time with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, then of the Northern League. Peterson was a first round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates at the MLB Draft in 1993.
With 16 games remaining, Seattle is firmly in second place in the WHL’s U.S. Division with a 33-23-3-0 record. They presently appear destined for a first round series with either the Portland Winterhawks or the Spokane Chiefs. At the very least, the Thunderbirds are a lock for a wild card berth in the postseason.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51