By Tim Pigulski
In his fifth and final season as a Seattle Thunderbird, Prince George, British Columbia, native Mitch Elliot is enjoying a level of success unknown to him and most of his teammates.
Although Elliot's individual numbers -- three goals and three assists in 45 games -- aren't particularly noteworthy, he's become an important member of a team that has won 31 games and sits just one point out of third place in the WHL's Western Conference.
Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at over 220 pounds, Elliot is one of the league's true heavyweights. With an abundance of young talent throughout the T-Birds roster, having an enforcer of Elliot's caliber has become even more important this year than it has in the past.
As a 20-year-old, Elliot isn't playing the traditional role of an overage veteran. Last season, the two 20-year-old skaters that the Thunderbirds finished the season with -- captain Luke Lockhart and Adam Kambeitz -- combined for 63 points, and the third 20-year-old, goalie Brandon Glover, played in 59 of the team's 72 regular season games.
"It's not the most glamorous role on the team," says the big forward. "You don't get to score goals and you don't get to celebrate a ton, but you get a lot of respect from your teammates for being there to protect them. It was a tough thing to embrace at first, but having done it for this many years it's started to get much easier."
This season the Thunderbirds have an unprecedented level of rookie talent filling out the forward ranks. Guys like Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor, and Ethan Bear are often the targets for opposing team's tough guys. Despite rarely being on the ice with many of these players, Elliot ensures that he makes his presence felt when he gets the opportunity.
"Everyone was talking about Barzal and Gropp when they came in, and Bear came in and worked hard to become an important part of the team," remembers Elliot. "I'm not always on the ice with them, but if I'm out there with one of the other so-called tough guys that might take a liberty with one of those guys, I have to let them know that I'll be there to back my teammate up."
When Elliot made the team as a 16-year-old, he certainly didn't have the hype of a Barzal or Gropp, but he did show an impressive combination of size and speed that led some to think he would develop into an effective scoring power forward in the league. While the points have eluded him, Elliot's still made enough of an impact to have the NHL's Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals take notice.
That season, his first in the WHL, Elliot spent most of the season on a line with Colin Jacobs and Tyler Alos, two other 16-year-old rookies. The line produced, combining for 47 points in limited playing time. In what ended up being a tough year for the T-Birds, the young line provided a glimmer of hope for the future.
In 2014, Elliot is the only of the three still skating for the team. Jacobs eventually decided that a change of scenery would be beneficial to his career and was traded to the Prince George Cougars. Alos' career was derailed by injury, and in a turn of events that no one could have predicted, he is now coaching his former linemate as an assistant with the Thunderbirds.
"It's a little different and not something I've experienced before," says Elliot when asked about now having to take direction from his former peer. "Alos is a great guy and a great leader. I always admired his work ethic and how he tried to get the most out of practice every day. That's why he'll be a good coach in the WHL -- he's willing to put the time in and talk about his time in the league. My relationship is different now than it was when we were 16, but it's a really cool situation we're in."
Not making the playoffs in his first three seasons in the league was admittedly tough for Elliot, and getting eliminated in the first round last year, while better than past years, was still not the result he had hoped for.
This season, as one of the top teams in the league and with the ability to compete with any opponent, the stakes are much higher.
"I'd be foolish not to say I want to go all the way," acknowledges Elliot. "I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch, but hopefully we can get home-ice advantage in the playoffs and go far."
Before the season began, it appeared that Elliot may make the Utica Comets' roster in the AHL. When he eventually returned to the Thunderbirds, many suspected he might be the odd man out, as his homecoming put the Thunderbirds over the maximum number of overage players and he didn't bring the typical contributions of a 20-year-old.
In another unpredictable turn of events, Elliot remains as the lone overage player on the T-Birds roster, a rarity amongst teams hoping to contend.
"I've always thought of myself as a leader," says the T-Birds' alternate captain. "I think being the only 20-year-old, it really makes me have to live up to that and lead by example."
Prior to the 2012-2013 season, Elliot was invited to the Washington Capitals' training camp. In his two professional opportunities, he received valuable tips from a few players in what he described as an unforgettable and incredibly valuable experience.
"You're so happy because you stick around in camp and might make the AHL, but there's apprehension that you may have played your last game in Juniors," reflects Elliot. "There was a guy by the name of Joel Rechlicz. He was Washington's tough guy -- he fought Milan Lucic in the preseason -- and he put in some extra time in showing me how to fight and avoid getting hurt.
"Another guy was Jason Chimera. When I got sent home from Washington, he spent some time talking to me about where I was from and what I was doing. ... I also have to tell the story of Alexander Ovechkin walking down the hall and saying 'Hello.' I had to look behind me to see if he was talking to someone else."
It would be unfair to profile the big left wing without bringing attention to the numerous contributions he's made in the classroom and the community.
Last season, Elliot won the team's Scholastic Player Honor for academic excellence for the fourth season in a row. When I spoke with him, he had just finished helping host a dinner at the Seattle Ronald McDonald House. Three years ago, when he began participating in the T-Birds' mentoring program, he was one of only two players to take part. Since then, he's encouraged his teammates to join and now there are over 10 members of the team working with students from around the area. You can find videos of Elliot performing Beethoven's "Für Elise" on the piano for local elementary school students on the Thunderbirds' website.
"The off-ice part is just as special to me as the on-ice part," says Elliot. "Those are the memories that will stick with you for a long time and make you feel like you're making a difference. At the end of the day, to say I've been able to make a difference in some people's lives, that's what it's all about."
Elliot was recently celebrated by the team for playing in his 300th game in a Thunderbirds uniform. The accomplishments the big forward has achieved both academically and athletically are the types of things make him a role model for younger generations of student-athletes, and are sure to firmly establish Elliot as a fan favorite, even after his time in the WHL has concluded.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.