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Seattle Thunderbirds' head coach Matt O'Dette looks ahead to Kamloops Blazers, potential classic Western Conference final

Nineteen NHL-drafted players, eight players in NHL Central Scouting final rankings ahead of the 2023 draft and nine players whom won world juniors gold for Canada this year are set to square off in the conference final

Seattle Thunderbirds’ head coach Matt O’Dette answered questions on Saturday (April 22), offering his take on what is likely to be a classic Western Hockey League post-season series featuring his club and the Kamloops Blazers.

Click the photo above for audio of the complete interview. 

The best-of-seven Western Conference Championship grudge match pits two teams with Memorial Cup aspirations against each other, with Kamloops — which is this year hosting the national championship tournament — looking for revenge on Seattle, which bounced the Blazers last year in Game 7 of the conference final, a 3-2 triumph at Sandman Centre.

Both teams are all-in for 2023, having made blockbuster trades and acquisitions to add to drafted-and-developed talent, the moves that have made this series must-watch for hockey fans, with 19 NHL Drafted players, eight players in NHL Central Scouting final rankings ahead of the 2023 draft and nine players whom won world juniors gold for Canada this year set to square off in the conference final.

Blazers’ head coach and GM Shaun Clouston and Kamloops captain Logan Stankoven will join Kamloops Last Week in studio on Monday for an interview.

Click here to subscribe to KLW.

Below is the question-and-answer session, with Marty Hastings [MH] of Kamloops This Week/Kamloops Last Week doing the asking and O’Dette [MO]  responding. It has been edited for length.

Game 1 is slated for Saturday, April 29, in Kent, Wash.


MH: What’s it like to be involved in a series like this, with two juggernauts going head to head?
MO: It’s exciting, for sure. Two excellent teams matching up in a conference final. What’s not to get excited about? There’s going to be some really good hockey on display, obviously, hotly contested, a really good matchup. It should be good for everyone involved, especially the fans.

MH: Nineteen NHL-drafted players, eight in NHL Central Scouting final rankings and nine who won world juniors gold this year — what jumps to mind when you hear that?
MO: I mean, you’re speechless, I guess. Rarely do you see that much talent on the ice at the same time in a junior hockey game. I think it speaks to what both organizations and what they’re doing to get themselves here. It’s going to make for a great series, when you have that type of talent and high-end players playing against each other. It’s going to be fun to watch.

MH: As a coach, how are you coping with the stress and pressure that comes along with having such a great team and the expectations to win?
MO: You try not to think about it. You focus on the job you have to do and tackle each challenge and each game as you get to it. 
Certainly, there is more pressure, with the moves that we’ve made and the expectations this year. Pressure comes with it, but you try and go about your business and it hasn’t really been at the forefront of my mind. It’s business as usual and tackle each challenge as we face it.

MH: What constitutes success this season for the Seattle Thunderbirds?
MO: Well, I think a championship. We fell short last year. We made it to the final and fell two games short. From the time that buzzer went in Game 6 in Edmonton, our goal has been to come back and win a championship. That’s a successful season for us. The goal is to get two wins further.

MH: It’s no secret Kamloops wants revenge on Seattle and this is the series the Blazers wanted. Fraser Minten talked about it before the Vancouver series. Is this the series the T-Birds have wanted all along, too?
MO: I think it’s no secret that our path was going to go through Kamloops. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing. Their path was going to go through Seattle. In order to get to where we want to go, which is the championship, odds are we were going to face Kamloops.
There was some excitement looking forward to that matchup. From a competitive side, you want to play against the best. That’s part of it. You want to stay in the moment. One of our messages has been, “Be where your feet are,” and try not to look ahead so far. With human nature, it’s hard. I’m sure Kamloops’ message was probably the same — it’s take care of business first and when we get to the conference final, we can tackle that then. I think everyone is relieved it’s finally here and we can fully put our attention to it. 

MH: So let’s talk about Kamloops. What are the challenges that stand out most about facing the Blazers?
MO: The talent. That goes without saying. I don’t know if it goes unnoticed, but Kamloops is a work-ethic based team. They’re one of the hardest-working teams in the league, with excellent habits. I think that’s kind of gotten them where they are, combined with the elite skill. We like to see ourselves the same way. A lot of the things we do are work-ethic based. We pride ourselves on some of those good habits. It allows our talent to shine from there.
I have a lot of respect for Kamloops, not just with their talent level. It’s their work ethic and the way play the game the right way, really structured and with good, hard-working habits.

MH: Kamloops made a big splash at the deadline. How did that move change their team?
MO: Obviously a big move. Both excellent players. When you can put a guy like [Olen] Zellweger on the ice for 30 minutes a game, that’s a big factor, a guy that competitive who plays both ends of the ice and is that dangerous, especially on the offensive side. He’s clearly had a big impact for the Blazers.
You get a big, heavy, 200-foot centreman like [Ryan] Hofer, he’s just a playoff type of guy. Those are the types of guys that you need in the playoffs. Playing against him so much in Everett, we have a ton of respect for the way he plays and what he brings to the table.

MH: I don’t imagine you will offer specifics, but do you see areas for exploitation when you look at the Blazers?
MO: Not really, no. If you look at the lineup, it’s pretty solid, top to bottom. All four lines are dangerous. Their back end’s got a bit of everything. They’ve got elite, offensive-minded defencemen and some high-quality 200-foot guys, and their goaltending has been solid all year.
Not a lot of weakness there to exploit. We see a lot of similarities between the two lineups and I don’t know what they would say about us, but I think two pretty evenly matched teams, to be honest.

MH: How do you see the goaltending matchup?
MO: Ernst has had an excellent year. Milic has had an excellent year.
I think Milic probably has more experience, being in the playoff run last year and his experience with the world junior team this year. Milic has that on his side, but I think both goalies have had excellent years and have been pretty stout so far in the playoffs. We expect a tough goaltending matchup.

MH: What type of player is Tij Iginla and what traits does he share with his father [Jarome]?
MO: Tij is an excellent young player. He’s played some really good hockey for us this year. He’s playing behind a lot of depth up front, but the times he’s been in the lineup for us in the playoffs, he’s played real well.
He’s got high-end skill, he’s got a heaviness and a grit to his game to go with it. High, high hockey IQ, as well, and strong work ethic. 
Compared to his dad, he’s got similar, power-forward type characteristics, a guy that can put the puck in the back of net and also play with that edge and that sandpaper element.
Tij is going to be a hell of a player for us for years to come. This experience he’s getting now, just being around and getting to practise and play with all these high-end players every day, is huge for him..He’ll be the guy running things here sooner than later.

MH: Which areas of Sawyer Mynio’s game have you seen develop most this season? [Mynio is a draft-eligible defenceman from Kamloops].
MO: He’s rounded out his game. Every aspect of his game has improved. His biggest strength is his skating. He’s such a good skater for a guy on the back end and for his size. He gets around the ice effortlessly. He hasn’t had the offensive opportunities to kind of pad the stats, playing behind [Kevin] Korchinski and [Jeremy] Hanzel. He hasn’t had the power-play time. That being said, he’s still got 30-plus points and I think he was a plus-50 on the season. Two-hundred-foot player, defends really hard, really good on the penalty kill. In the second half of the season, he’s really come into his own, come out of his shell a little bit. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and getting more and more attention from the scouts. 
People forget he was a 16-year-old last year playing a decent amount of minutes in the [WHL] final. He’s used that experience and carried that into this year. He’s a really big part of our back end. He kind of gets forgotten sometimes, playing behind some of those first-round NHL Draft picks.
There are some nights where he’s our best defenceman, some nights where he’s logging some of the most minutes on the back end, so he’s a very valuable piece of our team.

MH: What will the difference in the series be?
MO: It’s going to be tight. There’s no doubt, Whatever team can execute their game plan and be able to handle the momentum swings of the series. There’s going to be, I’m sure, highs and lows for both sides. Whoever can kind of respond to those situations the best and who can be more resilient when their backs are up against the wall. It’s going to be such a tight series. The way the teams handle those situations, I think, will be the difference.

MH: Neither team has faced any real adversity in these playoffs. You kind of touched on it there, but how important will that aspect of the series be?
MO: It’s interesting. Both teams haven’t faced it in the playoffs yet. And this is a new year. We can look back at our experience last year, facing elimination so many times and battling through it. (Seattle won six elimination games in the 2022 WHL post-season and became the first team in league history to win two Game 7s on the road in the same playoffs. Edmonton bested Seattle in six games in the league final.)
A lot of guys have experienced that first-hand, but this is a new season. It’s a new group of players. We can tap into that experience, but ultimately we have to show it again this year when we face those situations


The Seattle Thunderbirds have 10 NHL-drafted players on their roster, including forwards Jared Davidson (Montreal Canadiens), Reid Schaefer (drafted by Edmonton Oilers, traded to Nashville Predators), Dylan Guenther (Arizona Coyotes), Colton Dach (Chicago Blackhawks), Brad Lambert (Winnipeg Jets), Jordan Gustafson (Vegas Golden Knights) and Lucas Ciona (Calgary Flames), and defencemen Luke Prokop (Nashville Predators), Kevin Korchinski (Chicago Blackhawks) and Nolan Allan (Chicago Blackhawks).

The Kamloops Blazers have nine NHL-drafted players on their roster, including forwards Logan Stankoven (Dallas Stars), Ryan Hofer (Washington Capitals), Matthew Seminoff (Dallas Stars), Fraser Minten (Toronto Maple Leafs), Caedan Bankier (Minnesota Wild), Daylan Kuefler (New York Islanders) and Jakub Demek (Vegas Golden Knights), and defencemen Kyle Masters (Minnesota Wild) and Olen Zellweger (Anaheim Ducks).


Six T-Birds cracked NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings ahead of the 2023 NHL Draft.

Forward Gracyn Sawchyn, forward Nico Myatovic, defenceman Sawyer Mynio of Kamloops and defenceman Jeremy Hanzel are ranked 24th, 26th, 62nd and 124th, respectively, among North American skaters.

Seattle’s backup netminder, Scott Ratzlaff, is pegged fourth among North American goaltenders, while starter Thomas Milic is ranked 28th among North American goaltenders.

Two Blazers cracked the list, with Dylan Ernst ranked 26th among North American goalies and forward Connor Levis pegged 75th among North American skaters.


The series will feature nine players — three Blazers and six T-Birds — who won gold for Canada at the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship in Halifax: Zellweger, Bankier, Stankoven of Kamloops and Allan, Milic, Guenther, Korchinski, Dach and Schaefer of Seattle.