Updated Mar 22, 2013 - 12:35 pm
Captain Luke Lockhart leads T-Birds into playoffs in final WHL season
Teammates swarm Luke Lockhart in his final WHL regular season game (Kyle Scholzen, Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
When the Thunderbirds last made the playoffs following the 2008-09 regular season, Greg Scott was the team's leading scorer. Defenseman Thomas Hickey, at 19 years old, wore the "C" on his sweater in his final Major Junior season. Calvin Pickard was just a rookie.
Things have changed a little bit since then, both on and off the ice.
The ShoWare Center opened midway through that playoff season, as the team moved from the KeyArena in Seattle to the ShoWare Center in Kent.
Rob Sumner, who coached the team from 2004-05 through the 2010-11 season, was replaced by Steve Konowalchuk, who left an assistant coaching position with the Colorado Avalanche to lead the Thunderbirds.
Despite the ups and downs, consistencies and inconsistencies, hope and despair, there has been at least one stable presence on the Thunderbirds' bench: do-it-all center and captain Luke Lockhart.
A seventh-round draft choice by Seattle in 2007, Lockhart is the only player from that draft class who remains with the team.
During his rookie season in 2008-09, the fresh-faced 16-year-old notched 15 points on five goals and 10 assists in limited playing time. He had one assist in five playoff games as the Thunderbirds were trounced by the Spokane Chiefs four games to one, despite being just one seed lower.
It was a disappointing series for Lockhart, but it probably would have been even more upsetting if he would have known at the time that it would be over three years before he had another chance.
Since that inaugural campaign, Lockhart has entrenched himself in the hearts of his teammates and the fans that have supported him.
Never afraid to put his teeth in front of a slap shot, the now 20-year-old leader has done all of the little things that might not appear on a score sheet, but are certainly acknowledged in the form of stick taps from teammates and invigorating "LUUUUUUUUUUUUKE!" chants from an earnest crowd of adoring supporters.
To understand how respected the Burnaby, British Columbia native is, look no further than the honors bestowed on him over the past few years.
As an 18-year-old, Lockhart rotated with 20-year-old defenseman Brenden Dillon as team captain. During his penultimate WHL campaign, the "C" was permanently stitched on to his jersey, where it remains to this day.
Last weekend, he was voted Most Dedicated Player by his teammates and named the Most Valuable Player on the team, even though he only finished tied for fourth in scoring.
It isn't just those in his own locker room that hold "Locks" in high esteem, however. Prior to the regular season's final game, Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke declared May 16, 2013 "Luke Lockhart Day", which was met with cheers not only from the raucous home crowd, but also from the Winterhawks on the opposing bench, who could be seen pounding the boards and in admiration of their rivals' respected career.
"You play hard against them for five years, and as much as you can hate each other on the ice, it's nice to know that you've earned their respect," says Lockhart, who received the praise from his Portland opponents despite having scrapped with one of them 24 hours prior.
As the 5-foot-11 center prepares for the series against an elite Kelowna Rockets team, the goals remain the same as they did for Lockhart when he was a rookie, although where he fits in the team's plans are quite a bit different.
"My first year I didn't get as much ice time and wasn't looked upon as much as I will be this season," recalls Lockhart, who hopes to improve on the single point he registered during that series.
"I've come a long way since then," continues the hard-working forward, whose first order of business in talking about his own improvement was acknowledging everyone else who contributed to that process.
"I've learned from some really great players. My first year Thomas Hickey was the captain and I also got to play with Brenden Dillon for a long time. There have been all kinds of guys who have gone pro in the NHL or other places that I try to take pointers from."
Hickey and Dillon, now playing in the NHL for the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars respectively, were also counted on to play significant leadership roles during their stints with the Thunderbirds.
"I try and lead by example - I'm not always the most vocal guy," says the usually soft-spoken captain. "I'm not the only one though. We've got a good core group of guys that show leadership and help out in the locker room all the time."
In their last 10 games, Seattle is 3-5-0-2 and looked better over the season's final few weekends as players returned from injury and some chemistry was developed between the lines.
"We're coming in strong with a bit of momentum," says Lockhart when asked why other teams should be afraid of facing the seventh-seeded T-Birds. "We've been playing hard the last month or so and if we play together, we can give ourselves a chance here. Being a bigger, faster team we can use our size and our speed to wear other teams down."
So far this season, the Thunderbirds have fared decently against the Rockets, especially when one considers the strength of a Kelowna team that is second in the league in goals scored and third in goals against.
Seattle won the first meeting between the two teams 4-2, but followed it up with an ugly 8-0 loss a month and a half later. Following the blowout, the two teams faced off again the next night in a game that the Thunderbirds controlled for the majority but eventually lost in overtime. In the season's final matchup, the Rockets controlled the pace for most of the contest and came away with a 4-1 victory.
"[Kelowna is] a very good team and it's shown all year in the standings," says Lockhart of his first round opponent. "We want to focus on the things we've done successfully against them and not necessarily on the ups-and-downs," something there are sure to be a number of in any best-of-seven series.
Across the faceoff dot, the Rockets will be without captain and fourth-leading scorer Colton Sissons, a strong two-way center who will miss the series with an upper-body injury. The 19-year-old's absence is something that his counterpart in the captaincy doesn't feel will change the way the Thunderbirds prepare for the series, mainly because of the outstanding depth the Rockets possess.
"It doesn't change anything for us. He's obviously a very good player, but they're deep and they'll be fine without him. Whether he's in or out of the lineup, we won't change the way we play."
As the clock ticks down on Lockhart's WHL career, he'll be remembered as a player who, despite not holding the most skill of those on the ice, was a constant thorn in his opponents' side due to his hard work and grittiness between the whistles.
According to some around the league, the tenacious center is, surprisingly, one of the lesser-liked players on the Thunderbirds, although he is undoubtedly one of the most respected.
Being disliked by your opponents is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means you've impacted them in some way. Considering Lockhart has never been much of a fighter, nor someone known for talking much or laying big or dirty hits, one must believe that animosity is due to his abilities to frustrate his adversaries, especially when they're on the power play.
"It might be a good thing when other team's don't like you as much," laughed Lockhart when told of the distaste others around the league had for his hard-nosed playing style. "I play a hard between-the-whistles game and I guess it can be frustrating sometimes for the other guys when they're not having success against me."
It's that same tenacious work ethic that exasperates his enemies that has endeared the Thunderbirds' elder statesmen to the fans that fill the ShoWare Center on game nights.
At both the high and low points, followers remain united in the opinion that Lockhart gives everything he has night in and night out, whether the team is up by five goals or down by eight.
"It's nice to be able to give back to the fans this year with some playoff hockey. Hopefully we can get some wins and give them some more chances to come to the rink."
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
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