The Western Hockey League continues to develop high-end talent among defenseman, players that ultimately wind up patrolling the bluelines for NHL teams or as professionals around the world.
Another in the long line of elite WHL defensive prospects is Shea Theodore of the Seattle Thunderbirds. The Aldergrove, BC native was selected in the first round, 26th overall, by the Anaheim Ducks at the 2013 NHL Draft. He became the highest chosen Thunderbirds’ rearguard since Thomas Hickey went fourth overall to the Los Angeles Kings back in 2007.
“It’s pretty much every hockey players dream,” Theodore said when asked by Hockey’s Future about the excitement of Draft Day in New Jersey last June. “Going into the day, I talked with my parents and my agent and it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I didn’t go in the first round.
“It was more about lining up where it would be a better fit for me and for a team to go to. I just feel like it worked out extremely well for me going to Anaheim.”
Theodore attended workouts and training camps with the Ducks, an experience where he was able to enjoy the hockey and thrive among the prospects. He earned an entry level contract.
“I was going through main camp and thought I was playing pretty well,” he said when asked about signing the deal. “I didn’t really know too much about it but then I talked to my agent one day and he said he’d thrown some ideas at their general manager to see if they could work out a deal, and they agreed.
“Then he called me and said they had a contract written up and the next day I was supposed to go in and sign. I called my parents and they were pretty excited. I was in Anaheim and my parents were home in BC. I hadn’t spoken with them too much during camp because it was pretty busy.”
The Road to Pro Hockey
Like many young players, climbing the ladder through minor hockey programs is simply a fact of life. Over the past few years, however, additional opportunities have evolved, specifically the academy concept that enables players to combine the sport with their schooling. Theodore grew his game in part by attending the Yale Academy at Yale Secondary School in Abbottsford, BC.
“I grew up playing in the Aldergrove Minor Hockey system,” Theodore said. “Then I went to Yale from grade eight to 11 in the sport academy program at Yale Secondary. That was about a 15-minute drive in the mornings. A buddy and I kind of car pooled. His dad would drive in the morning and my mom or nanny would pick us up.”
Theodore, now 18, spoke highly of his academy experience noting Devon Toews (Quinnipiac – NCAA) as one of the players he particularly enjoyed competing with. He also credits Billy Wilms and Brad Bowen for their coaching on and off the ice. The academy at Yale Secondary also played a role in the development of current WHL player and top prospect, Jake Virtanen (2014) of the Calgary Hitmen.
“A typical day, well, I think we skated two or three times per week from grade nine to 11,” he explained. “And on those days when we weren’t skating, we were in the gym. That all represents basically one period or one block of the day. So instead of going to a phys-ed class or a cooking class, we would do the hockey thing to get our credits.”
Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk sees value in the academy programs, suggesting there is certainly the developmental aspect to consider.
“The academies cater to hockey and gets the guys on the ice a little more,” he said. “I think they do provide very good structure for players. I know the downfall is they cost money, but there is a lot of talent out there.
“There can be kids who are maybe around that last cut from their AAA teams that still need a good place to play. If they don’t have these other options, the guys that make the AAA teams tend to get the good practices and better coaching and they move forward. The other guys can kind of fall back a bit and I don’t think that’s good for hockey because you want to give as many people as possible the opportunity. I think that’s what these academies provide.
“It’s just another good option for players to play and at the end you give your athletes a better chance to rise.”
From Small Town to Big City
The Thunderbirds selected Theodore in the third round, 64th overall, at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. The opportunity would mean moving from a small town in Canada to a huge city in the United States.
“It was big, maybe a bit harder for my parents to swallow than for me,” Theodore recalled. “I mean, we come from a smaller town and the only hockey is a junior B team that plays in front of about 50 people a night. So my folks walked into a Showare Centre (home of the Thunderbirds in Kent, Washington) that is just beautiful and we pack it on most nights with a pretty crazy crowd. It might have been tough for them but for me I didn’t see it as too bad of a transition.”
He was also keen on learning to adapt to the WHL’s 72-game schedule.
“It’s definitely one of the harder schedules anywhere in junior,” Theodore said. “It really prepares us for the next level. There are 82 games in the NHL and I think the schedules are very similar. There are a lot of ups and downs during the year and it’s a grind, for sure. There are similarities and I like how it’s scheduled. You’re always playing hockey and you don’t have too much time off.”
It’s pretty clear the Thunderbirds are pleased as well with Theodore’s transition to junior hockey. Through the current campaign, he led all WHL defensemen in scoring with 22 goals and 57 assists and a +19 rating in 70 games. The scoring output is a 29-point improvement over last season.
“He’s huge for us,” Konowalchuk said. “He’s one of the best defensmen in the league and can bring it offensively. He can change momentum. His defensive play last year was maybe viewed as a weakness, but this year he’s been very good back there. We’ve matched him up against top lines all year, and he has still had some pretty good offensive success against those top lines.”
Watching the Thunderbirds in recent years, the sheer size of the blueline brigade appears daunting. Over the past two seasons, the 6’2”, 175-pound Theodore is actually diminutive in comparison to the likes of Jarad Hauf (6’6”), Evan Wardley (6’4”) and Kevin Wolf (6’6”). Theodore likes the size on the team’s backend.
“I guess it was pretty important,” he said. “I think it all started with the bantam draft when Hauf was our first pick. Taylor Green (now with the Brandon Wheat Kings) was our second pick and was also 6’6”, so I kind of grew up playing with those guys through the system when we were 14 and 15 years old going through camps. I kind of took it as my role to play offensively, because I knew the other guys were able to take care of a lot of the other stuff for us like clearing things out in front of our net.”
Konowalchuk also sees the value in the collective size among his defensemen, yet he does expect that everyone provides a consistent contribution.
“You need a good mix,” he said, when asked about the efforts of the group on defense in Seattle. “You don’t want everyone to just be able to move the puck, but even our big guys have to do that, and we encourage that. Some guys have a little more grit and some have more puck skills. You need to have your opponents worried about getting hit, as well. And you need guys who can jump up in the play. Like I said, I think you need a good mix.”
It was perhaps the most exciting series played in the 2013 WHL playoffs last season.
The upstart Thunderbirds were the last team to qualify for the post-season, finishing in eighth place. The Kelowna Rockets posted 52 wins to secure first place overall in the Western Conference. What may have looked like a cake-walk for Kelowna turned into anything but that when the Thunderbirds won the first three games of the best-of-seven series.
“We (Seattle) missed the playoffs my 16-year-old year,” Theodore said. “And last year was the first year we made the playoffs in about four seasons. But really, we were just trying to push just to make the playoffs, then we get seeded against Kelowna.
“We saw how deep they were and we looked at our team. Then to take them to a seven-game series? It just shows that you don’t have to have the deepest lineup and it can be all about who has the heart and who wants it more. We really battled with them for seven games.”
Konowalchuk agrees, although there is a sting associated with the Rockets winning four straight games, culminating with a Game Seven victory in overtime.
“It was a huge building block, those last two or three weeks last season just to make sure we made the playoffs,” Konowalchuk said. “Then to have the success against a real good team and get to a Game Seven, I know it’s hard to say ‘success” because it was a loss, but I also think we really wore them out and they may have been a little less competitive as the playoffs moved on.
“The guys that are on the team now who maybe didn’t get a taste of that success their first couple of years with us really appreciated that series and they want to get back and get another crack at it to go further. And we have a bunch of guys that have accepted roles here, maybe on other teams they would have bigger roles, but everybody wants to contribute to this team this year.”
This season, the Thunderbirds finished in fourth place among Western Conference teams, earning home ice advantage, an edge they took full advantage of in their first round series against the Everett Silvertips. They won the series four games to one to move onto a second round rematch with the Kelowna Rockets.
Theodore finished the opening series with three assists in the five games.
The International Hockey Experience
Theodore has enjoyed a number of opportunities to put his talents on display and also to further develop his skill set through Hockey Canada programs. He is confident he has become a much more complete player, given the opportunities he has had to play on the international stage.
“I was able to play in both the World Championship and the Ivan Hlinka Memorial in the same year,” Theodore said. “In early August the Hlinka camp opens up and that includes all the top juniors across Canada, so that probably is the most talent from the country. It’s before guys are heading to their junior teams, so everybody is there, nobody is missing from the talent pool. I feel like going into that tournament, we’re almost unstoppable. At the Hlinka, I think we’ve won consecutively in gold medal positions every year for awhile.”
The IIHF U18 World Championship is a little different proposition for Hockey Canada, as the organization is somewhat limited in terms of available players. Many of the top juniors eligible for the tournament are still busy with their respective teams on the road to qualifying for the Memorial Cup.
“After the regular season, the team is made up of guys who didn’t make the playoffs or were out in the first or second round,” Theodore said. “I mean, for 2013, we could have had guys like Nathan McKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, but they were still playing with their junior teams. So you miss some of those higher end players. But we’re pretty deep as a talent pool within Canada, I mean we still had a great team and ended up winning it.”
Theodore was passed over this season for Hockey Canada’s entry at the 2014 WJC, but is likely on the radar for the 2015 edition.
The Last Word
When asked about Theodore’s development, Konowalchuk didn’t mince words.
“It’s the way we’ve seen him progress,” Konowalchuk said. “Part of it’s maturity, part of it’s confidence.
“He’s smart enough to know how to get in and out of corners and then get the puck up ice. Yet he’s become pretty big defensively. He understands the importance of taking care of both ends. He’s also stronger physically now, which has made him more confident when he has to battle.
“He’s huge for us.”
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51