One of the contenders for the feel-good story of the Western Conference this year has to be the Seattle Thunderbirds. Under rookie Head Coach Rob Sumner, the T-Birds have gone from worst to first in the U.S. Division. Eclipsing their entire points total from the 2003-04 season, Seattle has set its sights on Kootenay and Kelowna for the top billing in the entire conference.
Beyond the coaching change, what has been the difference? A look at the roster confirms that they pretty much have an identical roster from last season.
One big factor has been the emergence of goalie Bryan
Bridges, who picked a great time to break out of his shell and emerge as one of Seattle’s top go-to
players, as he looks forward to the next NHL Entry Draft.
In his fourth year in the WHL, Bridges’ hard work and determination have paid great dividends on many fronts. Seattle, who finished the 2003-04 with 24-31-8-9 record, were in the cellar for the most of last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1988-89 season. However, the 2004-05 season has been a completely different
Playing with a sense of rejuvenated confidence, Bridges boasts a 1.83 goals against average, a .925 save percentage and a total of nine shutouts (tied for the league lead). The numbers have done a good job talking because they’re all career bests for the netminder and also happen to be among the tops in the WHL.
“It definitely feels good,” said Bridges about his success so far this season. “It’s a big confidence booster to be ahead of some of the other goalies in this league that have big names.”
He’ll check his stats once and a while but it isn’t something that he tends to get caught up with. Understanding that the season is far from done, he reflects on what has gotten him to this plateau and tries to remain a constant for Seattle.
“The coaching staff has been great,” a factor he explained has helped make the difference this year. “They have been working with me quite frequently and they have also been giving me a lot of help. I’ve really worked on my mindset and going into every game with the confidence knowing what I have to achieve. I found that this year, I get a lot more frustrated when I let a puck in the net. I would say that is has been more than other years because I feel like I have the drive to move forward and play with a lot more consistency now.”
Getting over that preverbal hump can always be hard when you go from the top of the league to the bottom in a matter of what seems like
Bridges came into the league at the start of the 2001-02 season as a rookie for the Kootenay Ice. That season also happened to be the same
one in which they made a drive to the Memorial Cup finals, and took home the cup. He would come in as the starter for the Ice in the 2002-03 season and put up decent numbers en route to the playoffs, which were short lived. The 2003-04 season rolled around and before he could get comfortable, the Ice traded him to the Thunderbirds, where he played out the remainder of the 2003-04 season with the sub-par squad.
This season, Bridges has shown just what he is really capable of. The T-Birds are in the midst of finishing out the final third of their season, with the playoffs waiting in the near future. He feels the team is nearing a point where he thinks they will be ready to make a deep drive into the post season. Like his teammates, he has hopes of making a strong bid for the Memorial Cup as well.
“When I look back to my first year in the league when I went to the Memorial Cup with Kootenay, this team adds up to that one for sure,” he explained about the
team’s chances. “We have the right mindset and the guys all know what they want. We have proven ourselves. If we continue to give our best effort, come back hard, pressure the puck, do the little things right,
we can be successful.”
Having won the cup with Kootenay in 2002, Bridges also has a mental edge that he hopes will benefit the team and himself this year.
“It’s going to help quite a bit,” Bridges said. “I’ve seen what it takes to get there. Hopefully, I can use that and pass it along to the guys. There are also a couple other guys that have made some playoff runs themselves on this team. All together, we have a pretty good understanding
as to what it is going to take.”
Next time around
Bridges was able to opt-in to the 2004 NHL Entry Draft last summer, due to a late birthday. After spending the draft weekend listening
to which of his peers had been selected to what clubs, he realized that his name was not one of them. In what can be explained as some sort of divine intervention, he has used the negative experience in his favor for this season and for the future.
“Not getting selected last year has been a big motivator,” he explained about his approach
after the 2004 draft. “It would be an honor to get selected and think I have put a good name out there for myself. Being an older guy, it hurts me a bit,
but I think I have a decent chance of going.
It is no secret that goaltenders seem to mature later in their careers as opposed to other positional players.
Heading into the draft this time around, Bridges hopes a couple clubs now understand that he has what it takes to move on. He’s aware to an extent that clubs have been interest with him, but he continues to keep that focus on the ice.
“My focus is playing, to be honest,” he explained when asked about what teams have been showing interest. “I’ll let my agent deal with that aspect of it.”
Don’t get him wrong. He wants to continue his career beyond junior and understands that he is going to have to work for every opportunity he gets.
“I am going to have to continue to work extremely hard every day,” he explained about getting those opportunities. “That has been my whole approach this year. I have to maintain the consistency and hard work for my whole career.”
And where his determination and ability takes him, he knows he’ll be a welcomed addition wherever his next stop might be.
“I have a ‘no give up’ attitude,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, I’m not going to quit and give up on my teammates. I love to compete. As a person, I might be a little quiet but when I speak up, it’s from the heart. I think I have showed what I am capable of this year and would love to move on and be just as successful wherever my career takes me.
“You know what you’ve done and you know what you’ve accomplished,
so you just keep it to yourself, move forward and continue to work hard.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not
duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.