By Tim Pigulski
Last week, Colorado native Scott Eansor became the fourth player on the T-Birds roster with roots originating in The Centennial State. He joined forward Seth Swenson, defenseman Griffin Foulk, and goalie Danny Mumaugh as players currently with the team who at some point spent time with the Colorado Thunderbirds' Tier 1 Minor Midget club.
Over the past few years, Colorado has developed into one of the premier locations for developing youth talent in the western United States, now competing with California in large part due to the success of the Tier 1 program.
With two NCAA powerhouses in the state – Denver University and Colorado College – players have traditionally opted to steer clear of the WHL route and instead focus on working toward earning a scholarship from one of the local colleges. Due to the tough choice that many American-born players face between the CHL and NCAA, they often find themselves slipping down the draft boards of WHL teams, as organizations are wary of the possibility that the players they select won't sign with the team.
Mumaugh, a 17-year-old from Centennial, Colo. was one of those players who wasn't selected but was able to impress Seattle scouts at a showcase, a brief tournament consisting of four to five games that draws scouts from all over the league.
"I was told I might get drafted, but for goalies it's always a tossup," said the 5-foot-10 netminder. "[T-Birds director of player personnel] Colin Alexander saw me and liked me and started talking to my agent. I got invited to Seattle's camp and really liked the fit."
Like Mumaugh, Foulk didn't expect much hype as an American-born player. For some time, he was debating between playing for the Everett Silvertips, who held his rights at the time, or pursuing an NCAA scholarship.
"I didn't expect much as an American, but I met with a few teams before the draft and wanted to keep that door open," said Foulk, who was acquired by Seattle in November. "The director of the program played college hockey so I think he has a bit of pull in that direction, but it's nothing too heavy. I ended up switching representation to Turning Point Sports Management and decided the best route to the NHL for me was through the WHL."
It would seem as though Seattle, one of only five WHL teams located in the United States, would have the inside track on landing the elite U.S.-born talent, including that produced by the Colorado program. The recent influx of talent would seem to validate that assumption, but to say that there is a direct connection between the two programs at this point would be a stretch, according to both players and Seattle general manager Russ Farwell.
"That Colorado team is probably the best western midget program in the U.S. They bring players from all over, but I don't think there's any direct tie," Farwell said. "There are players from there that have gone to other teams. [Brandon] Carlo that played for Tri-City at the end of the year is also from there. It's a good program, well run and well coached."
Despite the lack of any official connection, the relationship between players who have gone through the program undoubtedly factors into the decision process.
Both Foulk and Mumaugh skated with Eansor in the offseason and were in frequent contact as they tried to lure him to Seattle. Mumaugh and Eansor, both 17, have played together since their second year of Pee Wee and train together during the summer. Foulk, a year older than the other two, also participates in the training sessions and was able to provide guidance for Eansor as he made his decision this summer.
"Scott came up to skate with us before the season ended and then called to ask me some questions about the league," said the 18-year-old Foulk. "I went through the same process and was able to give him some advice."
One of the other western powerhouses, the Los Angeles Jr. Kings, has a very impressive alumni list, including Bobby Ryan and Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks. Both players had initially planned to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program – Ryan, a New Jersey native, originally told OHL teams he would not play Major Junior, and Etem moved from California to Michigan to play for the program – but eventually decided that the CHL was the best route for them.
The appeal of the CHL is becoming greater as more American players choose the Major Junior route, which has led to an increase in the number of draftees from U.S. programs. In this month's Bantam Draft alone, five 1998-born Colorado Thunderbirds players were selected by WHL clubs.
"It's hard with DU and Colorado College so prominent, but the Western Hockey League is becoming more appealing with all of the great talent coming out of there," Mumaugh said. "No matter what, you have to acknowledge the presence of the WHL."
Foulk agreed with Mumaugh's sentiments, stating that a shift is definitely occurring, but also recognizing that it may be a cyclical occurrence and not necessarily permanent at this point.
"We had five guys drafted into the WHL and the tide is changing a little bit for sure, but nothing is set in stone at this point. Guys still have a choice," he said.
In addition to players currently on Seattle's active roster, it is also likely that there are a number of players on the club's "list" – players whose rights are owned by the team, but are not yet signed. The Thunderbirds keep their list relatively private, but one well-known name is Dylan Gambrell, who participated in training camp prior to last season and turned some heads, but appears committed, at least at this point, to playing for Denver.
Swenson had a breakout season as a 19-year-old, notching 46 points while playing in all 72 regular-season games. Foulk emerged during the playoffs as a reliable defenseman and should play an important role on the blue line this season. Mumaugh, after backing up 20-year-old Brandon Glover as a rookie, enters this season with a significant shot at earning some major playing time in net. Eansor, who displays keen awareness for his age, will likely be counted on from day one to contribute as a two-way center. If Seattle is somehow able to lure Gambrell to the Emerald City, it's probable that he'd eventually find himself in a top-six forward role.
Whatever the connection may be, it seems as though the Seattle Thunderbirds have found a bit of a gold mine in the Colorado program that shares their mascot.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.