Though there were a slew of high-profile deals during the WHL’s trading flurry in December and January, one seemingly minor move made by the Seattle Thunderbirds may have been biggest steal at the deadline.
When the T-Birds shipped a conditional sixth-round draft choice to Prince Albert for 19-year-old forward Cory Millette, barely anyone noticed.
The Thunderbirds became the third team of the season for Millette, who started the season with Saskatoon before being sent to the Raiders for a fifth-round pick as the Blades continue to rebuild. Millette was the second-leading scorer for Saskatoon when he left, but had only three goals and four points in 17 games with the Raiders.
Sensing that things weren't working out for either side, the Raiders sent him out west in a deal that's paid huge dividends for both Millette and the T-Birds. He’s contributed seven goals and 13 points in just 17 games in Kent, and plays on the team’s first power play unit with the likes of Mathew Barzal, Roberts Lipsbergs and Shea Theodore. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk uses him with a variety of linemates in even-strength situations, which highlights Millette's versatility.
“We did our homework on him and knew he’s real good on the power play in front of the net, and a veteran who can play with any line,” Konowalchuk said. “But I think he’s doing even better than we thought. He’s really effective around the net and honestly I didn’t know that he’d be quite at this level.”
Millette’s four power play goals with the T-Birds are of the “greasy” variety, the result of camping in front of the opposing goaltender and refusing to be denied on loose pucks in tight.
“It’s my job to hang out there and hack and whack,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier when you’re out there with such great hockey players.”
Now playing for the fourth team in his WHL career (he played his first two seasons with Red Deer), Millette’s become accustomed to starting over with a new franchise.
Seattle has been a major adjustment, though, because of the size of the city and the different culture in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. While hockey is king back home in Storthoaks, Saskatchewan (population 100), it’s all about football in the massive Seattle metro area (population 3.6 million).
When he moved to his new team, he got to see firsthand the passion for the NFL’s Seahawks in his new home.
“I was never a really big football fan, but it’s been fun and I’ve learned quite a bit about it,” Millette said. “It’s amazing how much Seattle bleeds for the Seahawks. It’s too bad they weren’t able to win.”
Experiences like that make all the upheaval worth it for a teenager who grew up on a farm before heading to Saskatchewan’s prominent Notre Dame boarding school in ninth grade.
He believes his upbringing taught him the value of hard work and prepared him for anything that’s thrown his way.
And while it’s hard enough to say goodbye to his own family during the season, he’s had to leave three billet families behind as his career progressed.
“There’s been a lot of transition in my life,” he said. “It’s a fun journey, but it’s still tough when you become close to your billets then you get called into the office and find out you’re moving on.
“I still keep in touch with all of them. I talk almost every day with my billets in Saskatoon.”
Seattle may be home for another season, as Millette has not been drafted by an NHL team and is the only 1995-born forward playing for the young Thunderbirds. He was brought in to provide veteran stability to the team, and now has an opportunity to make a playoff run that wouldn’t have happened in Prince Albert or Saskatoon.
“I’ve only played in six playoff games, so this is a big opportunity,” he said. “With the depth we have, I think we have a chance to make a big push.”
Seattle is third in the U.S. Division behind Everett and Portland, and a first-round matchup with the four-time defending conference champion Winterhawks looks more likely each day.
The T-Birds could still catch Portland for second place, which would get them home ice advantage in the series. Seattle has been at its best over the last month, as Theodore returned to the team from the world junior championship, Barzal came back from a freak knee injury and Lipsbergs rejoined the club from the ECHL. Overage goaltender Taran Kozun leads the league in goals-against average and is tied for second in save percentage.
They might still be viewed as an underdog to Portland in a seven-game series, but confidence is high in Seattle.
“I think the adversity through most of the year has helped us,” Konowalchuk said. “Our young guys have grown into their roles, and now we’ve been able to get them some help.
"It's good to have some depth and guys who have been through a lot."