No one in the Seattle Thunderbirds organization could
have contemplated that their team, who won the WHL U.S. division title during the 2002-03 season, could
fall so far in one season.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what took place. When the Seattle Thunderbirds fell, they fell hard. The impact left them battered, bruised and crawling for the finish
line at the end of last year. After outright dominating their division in 2002-03, Seattle finished the
2003-04 season in last place.
But the Thunderbirds picked themselves up and looked to fix what had gone wrong
over the offseason. The response came quickly and involved a move behind the bench.
After leading the Thunderbirds for the last four seasons and winning the franchise’s first-ever U.S. Division championship in 2002-03, former head coach Dean Chynoweth left Seattle to accept a dual role as General Manager and Head Coach with the Swift Current Broncos.
In his place, Owner and General Manager Russ Farwell turned to long time assistant coach and faithful employee Rob Sumner, to lead the Thunderbirds resurgence.
Changing of the guard
After helping build a system that continued to grow and improve over the years, how could Sumner come in and get the club to bounce
back after a forgettable 2003-04 season? Pretty simple, he got back to the basics.
Looking to pick up the pieces and not make many drastic changes, Sumner sat down with Farwell and started looking at how they could improve for this season.
After getting his staff in order, Sumner then reached out to the players and helped set the tone for the upcoming season. Phoenix prospect Aaron Gagnon
was quick to credit Sumner’s dedication and guidance in the change.
“He’s done a great job and has taken this very seriously,” said Gagnon. “He came in during the summer and met with every single player. He got all of us on the same page. I really felt that has been the difference.
We knew what we had to do coming into the season and we have done that so far. Everyone is playing within the system, playing well defensively and playing very hard.”
And for Sumner, he deflects the team’s early success back towards the players.
“For the most part, I think the players were collectively not happy with how we finished last year,” Sumner explained. “They came in with the attitude that they were going to do something about it.”
While trying to build a new identity for the Thunderbirds, Sumner stressed the importance of a team first concept, player accountability and maintaining an overall positive environment. He also credits the players for responding to these important factors.
“We obviously wanted a different outcome from last season, so with that we have tried some different things. We are concentrating on team success and a team first mentality. A lot of the players have responded to that.”
Even with early injuries to key senior players, younger players have filled the void and Seattle has jumped out to an early lead in their division. They have ascended back to the top of pack with an overall record of 14-5-0-0.
A rising star
Looking at Gagnon’s statistics alone, it’s clear he has taken charge of the Thunderbirds early on. After getting minimal time on the ice before the season had started due to an illness, it makes his accomplishments ever more
“I worked really hard throughout the summer to get stronger,“ Gagnon
explained. “Towards the end there, I got stuck with mono. It drained a lot out of me. I ended up losing 18 pounds and I never got the chance to go to this year’s pro camp with Phoenix. It was really disappointing.”
Instead of letting his late summer misfortunes frustrate him, Gagnon bounced back, channeled his energy, and has erupted as the
team’s leading scorer.
During his rise to the top, the Armstrong, B.C. native has had two significant goal scoring streaks. The first one occurred between October 9-15, where he tallied a total of four goals. The second and most recent surge came between October 29th and lasted until November 10th. During that span, he played in a total of five games and racked up six goals.
Also during this time, Gagnon has combined for a total of 19 points (12 goals, 7 assists) and is currently ranked 22nd in the WHL for scoring.
“I think the key things that he is doing right now, would be just about everything. He plays all aspects of the game well,” an overjoyed Sumner stated about Gagnon. “He is very good offensively. Obviously his statistics reflect that, but he is equally as good in his own end. He is so strong
down low, wins battles and is excellent on faceoffs.”
Gagnon has become heralded as one of the better, if not the best all-around players for the Thunderbirds. And if his exposure during even strength play wasn’t enough, Sumner felt the versatile center could handle some increased responsibility on Seattle’s special teams. Thus far, the coach’s move was about was well drawn out and analytically executed as could be.
“Our power play hasn’t been that good,” stated Sumner. “Aaron has that one guy that has produced on the
power play. As well, he is by far league-wide, one of the best penalty killers in my mind.”
Of Gagnon’s 12 goals, half of them have come on the power play and Seattle’s
penalty-kill is a successful 80 percent.
By now, it should come as no surprise that Gagnon is becoming one of the WHL’s top players. His resiliency, versatility and ability to
tally crucial points when they count, has not only caught the attention of his competition, but the attention earned him a call from the league itself.
For his hard work and dedication, Gagnon was selected to a spot on Team WHL for the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge.
He will be playing along some of Canada’s and the WHL’s top players such as Dion Phaneuf (CGY), Cam Barker (CHI), Andrew Ladd
(CAR), Kyle Chipchura (MTL), and Ryan Getzlaf (ANA).
“I was really surprised at the time, but it feels great to be compared to some of those players,” said Gagnon. “They are a pretty spectacular group, so the comparison and the chance to play alongside them is a honor.”
The exhibition series will wrap up its second tour this December 1st through the 2nd in Alberta. Team WHL will play in their first contest in Red Deer on and close out the series in Lethbridge the following night.
Sumner couldn’t be anymore pleased for him.
“First and foremost he has earned it,” a proud Sumner told Hockey’s Future. “I think it is great for him to be recognized with that group of elite names. Secondly, anytime you get to play in that kind of competition, it will increase his confidence. It is a real feather in his cap to be recognized for that.”
Follow the leader
Gagnon and his teammates are flourishing under Sumner’s system thus far. The coach referred to his style as being “overly simplistic.” As a unit, the new look Thunderbirds deploy a balanced attack structured around Sumner’s defensive first approach.
His philosophy is based off a very rigorous backcheck, while trying to objectively restrict opponents from effectively developing a cohesive breakout. He also looks to his players to be very responsible and limit opposition odd-man rushes.
“Balance is the key and not just in scoring,” Sumner offered. “We’ve had good goaltending and six returning
defensemen on a roster that boasts a total of seven players drafted by NHL clubs. The defense has experience and we also have well balanced scoring up front. Depth is one of our main things that has
conributed to the success too. Everyone caring a lot about playing both ends of the ice has helped.”
Early statistical returns for the young season are good. Seattle has held opponents to a total of 26 goals in a total of 19 games. On the other hand, they have outscored the competition at a 2 to 1
rate. The Thunderbirds have also out shot the opposition 562 to 354. They are also currently ranked 15th in the WHL for penalty minutes, which points to the fact players are doing a job playing good positional hockey. They are taking
an average of 20.8 penalty minutes per game.
“We come into each game confident,” Gagnon explained. “Not so much that we are not going to come out, play hard and just expect a win. We come each night playing the style we are capable of and we play very hard.”
It shouldn’t go without mention that Seattle has also been backed by the spectacular play from goalie
Brian Bridges (2005 draft eligible). In 15 contests that he has lined up for between the pipes, the netminder has an astounding 1.31 goals against average and a stellar
.948 save percentage. With only a fraction of the season of his belt, Bridges has added five shutouts, giving him a career total of
nine over the past two seasons with Seattle. He broke the Thunderbirds record for career shutouts (8) previously set by Cody Rudkowsky from 1995-99.
When asked what it would take for the Thunderbirds to remain on top for the remainder season
Gagnon offered, “We really have to continue what we are doing. Everyone needs to remain consistent in their play and we have to continually buy into the system. We need work hard defensively, but we also have to work hard in the opposite end. By that, I mean working hard
down low and getting pucks to the net. And finally solid goaltending. We have that so far, hopefully we can keep that going and it will be a great season for us.”
The elder statesman
Though Gagnon has accomplished a lot so far on the ice for the Thunderbirds, Sumner also feels that
his attitude and approach is a key aspect that his teammates identify in him on a daily basis.
“He is very likable guy but at the same time a very good example,“ Sumner pointed out. “Consistently night in and night out he plays very well. The same goes for practice. He never takes a day off and he is always trying to get better. I think that really rubs off on the other guys.”
Gagnon has accepted the role and realizes that it something that has been bequeathed to him as former Seattle players have moved on from the organization. It wasn’t that long ago when he was the rookie coming into the league, looking up to the older players for support and guidance. He understands that being a leader and mentor to his teammates, especially the younger players is something that is needed, if not expected.
“I really learned a lot in my first year because of the quality of players,” Gagnon said. “We had players like Dustin Johner (CGY), Matt Spiller (PHX) and Brooks Laich (WSH) playing ahead of me. I learned a lot of leadership skills from them and how to be focused and prepared.”
Being at the top of his class now, Gagnon and other seasoned players are really using that team first mentality to bring the new players along and make the transaction both fun and fruitful. And to their credit, the youth
have staked their claim in the team’s gains.
When Seattle started the season, they were set back by injuries to key contributors in Nate Thompson
(BOS), Chris Durand (2005 draft eligible) and Denis Tolpeko (2005 draft eligible).
‘When we had some of the older key guys get hurt early on, it was younger players who stepped in and proved they could play,” Sumner said. “They have done exactly that. We have a couple first year guys that have played in a couple different positions and have really stepped up and showed they are capable.”
Gagnon has played with a lot of the younger players at one point during this season. Most notably, he has
had more of an hands-on approach with one rookie in general. Lately, he has been anchoring a line that boasts fellow returnee Derek Couture (free agent) and rookie Ladislav Scurko (PHI). On a roster that has a total of seven rookies, Scurko currently leads all of them in scoring.
Gagnon admires the line he is on because he feels as of late, they have all been playing very well together. He feels that since the
formation, the more they have been on the ice, they better they are getting to know each other. The three have combined for a total of 44 points, split evenly between 22 goals and 22 assists apiece and are currently responsible for
32 percent of the team’s offensive output.
Sumner recognizes the strides that all of his players have made. He has keyed in on Scurko and is impressed with the forward, who is in his first year in the WHL after playing last season with Gelnica SVK in the Slovakian junior league.
“He has adjusted rather quickly because of his tenacious style of play. He is just a player that is really hungry for
loose pucks,” Sumner noted. “We expect him to be a star player for us, so I would say it hasn’t been that much of a surprise. We are really happy with his impact so far.”
Added Gagnon, “That is huge for him to come in here when he is just getting used to the play in North America. I think his style suits the
team’s style and concept. He is good down low, he can shoot the puck and make plays. He is not afraid to get in traffic areas and go hard to the net.”
Right here, right now
It was only four and a half months ago when Gagnon was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft with the 240th overall pick. The memory remains in the back of his mind only because he wants to be focused, he wants to progress and he wants to continue contributing with the Thunderbirds first.
Sumner characterizes Gagnon as person who stays within his means and doesn’t get ahead of himself. Even though it is such a great honor to be drafted and getting to play on Team WHL, Sumner feels that he doesn’t let much get to him as far as highs or lows.
Sumner has coached Gagnon for his entire stay in juniors and has firsthand knowledge of how well
he has progressed over the years.
“Very steady,” Sumner described. “He has come along at the right pace in each of his years here. He should be a very prominent player here being 18 and he will get better as he gets older. He is on the right pace. We think a lot of him as a player and he is surely living up to it.”
And finally for Gagnon, he is making a great start to what should be a very long and successful hockey career. He is aware that in hockey as in life, his success will rely on his determination and will to always learn and get better.
“I think I have to get better with everything to make it to the next level,” explained Gagnon.
”The pro game is a lot faster and the guys are a lot stronger. I will continue to workout, do the little things well and work on every part of my game to try to make to the next level. I got of a couple years here to really bare down and improve
every day before I try to make that jump.”
Being selected by the Coyotes has already given him the inside track. There are currently four players in Phoenix’s system, not including himself, who all have roots that lead back to the Thunderbirds organization and who are currently at different stages of their own development.
“Having Ryan Gibbons here is great because we’re close,” said Gagnon. “Guys like Spiller, Oleg Saprykin and even Darren McLachlan are all former Thunderbirds. I talk to those guys and they tell you what it is like. Having someone going through the same thing you are really helps out a lot.”
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