Bittersweet ending for Thunderbirds’ core

WINDSOR, Ont. — When the Seattle Thunderbirds fell 7-0 on Tuesday to the Saint John Sea Dogs at the Memorial Cup, it signalled the last time the franchise’s core would play together.

It’s the end of a four-year journey for a group of teenagers now forced to take the next step in their careers.

Forwards Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor and defenceman Ethan Bear — all rookies with Seattle in 2013 — will be moving on, with four full seasons of junior under their belt.

“After we lost I was kind of having flashbacks from when I was 16 to now,” said Bear, an Oilers prospect. ”Very sad, probably the last day I’ll throw on the jersey with those guys.

“Proud of what we accomplished, tough to go out the way we did. Been a long season, went through a lot. I’m pretty happy with what we did.”

The future looks bright for the soon-to-be Thunderbirds graduates.

In 2015, four of them had their named called at the NHL Draft, with Barzal leading the way as the 16th-overall pick by the Islanders. Gropp went 41st to the Rangers, Kolesar 69th to Columbus and Bear 124th to Edmonton. Eansor, an overager who serves as Seattle co-captain, is undrafted but hoping to earn a contract. All five attended an NHL camp last fall.

But after their second straight thumping at the four-team tournament for the biggest trophy in major junior hockey, the future was the last thing any of them were thinking about.

“We obviously had different plans for this tournament, not to score three goals and get outscored 18 to 3 or something,” said Barzal.

“Hasn’t really sunk in season’s done yet, just happened fast. In a day or two we’ll look back, it’s pretty impressive to win the WHL (championship).”

In 2012-13, the Thunderbirds finished 24-38-10 and exited the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Seattle had used the 2012 bantam draft to stock up for the future, selecting Barzal, from Coquitlam, B.C., Gropp of Kamloops, B.C., Winnipeg’s Kolesar and Bear, from Ochapowace, Sask., as 15-year-olds. Eansor, of Englewood, Calif., signed a WHL contract in 2013 and the five joined the team for the very next season.

Seattle never had a winning percentage below .590 in the four seasons they were together. They made two league championships, winning the franchise’s first in 2016-17 to reach the Memorial Cup, and their 98-point season this year was the best since the 1989-90 squad.

“A lot of memories when I was 16, a rookie, getting picked on, some of the best times I had. Last four years are kind of swinging in my brain right now,” said Barzal.

“It’s been cool, not turning the franchise around but just kind of revamping. Some of those guys are some my best friends.”

Their impact on the team will be felt when they’re gone as the younger players will have to step in to fill their skates.

Barzal (278) and Gropp (254) cracked the franchise’s top-10 all-time scorers, sixth and 10th respectively. Eansor, a leader of the group, served as captain this year while Barzal was with the Islanders and rotated when he returned. Kolesar finished third on the team in goals despite missing eight weeks with hernia surgery and was their leading scoring in the post-season, while Bear won WHL defenceman of the year to cap his career.

“They’ve grown up with me as a coach, we’ve had our battles and they’re good, young men,” said Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk.

“I have respect for all of them. I’ll miss those guys. I hope our young guys learn from them.”

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