T-Birds Going Red, White And Blue

It seems the strangest of places for the "made in America" label. The sport of junior hockey has been forever the domain of roughneck Canadian kids.

Welcome to the Americanization of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

"We make our money in America, damn it," said Russ Williams, T-birds president, "and we are an American team. We're obligated to our fans to have more American players."

I'm not sure the fans care, not when the pulse of the game is rock music and a stiff body-check to the boards. Not when the opposition is both Spokane and Saskatoon, not when winning is everything.

In recent years, Seattle's stars were Glen Goodall, a Canadian, and Petr Nedved, a Czech.

But a year ago, the T-Birds, owned by Bill Yuill of Medicine Hat, Alberta, took on this strange mission of manifest destiny, of not only playing in America, but playing with Americans.

They hired Walt Kyle, an assistant coach at Northern Michigan University, to become the first American to coach in the Western Hockey League, even though five of the league's most successful franchises - Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Tri-City and Portland - are in the U.S.

Just last week, collegiate star John Lilley quit Boston University to join the T-birds, whose roster now lists four Americans plus an American coach.

The best may be yet to come.

"This Northwest area, in my opinion," said Kyle, "could be the next hotbed of hockey in the U.S. The interest is here; all we need are the facilities."

In the past, most of America's good young hockey players came from the Northeast and the northern reaches of the Midwest. They used college hockey as a springboard to the NHL, just as American football players use colleges to prepare them for the NFL.

A change is under way. The NCAA has limited college hockey to 35 games a year, half the number played by most "major junior" teams, like those in the Western Hockey League. Kyle left for the WHL; so did Lilley, a very fast and gifted center who had played for Kyle on the U.S. junior national team the previous summer.

"As a kid, growing up around Boston, I always wanted to play college hockey," said Lilley, 20, a college sophomore. "But I found that college interfered with hockey, and hockey interfered with college.

"I want to finish college someday, but right now I want to give my attention to hockey. Being here in Seattle, playing in the Western Hockey League, it is a better route for me to take."

The acquisition of Lilley and the improved play of goalie Doug Bonner, another American, has helped push the T-birds over .500, giving them a chance to make the playoffs after there appeared little chance when the season began.

"We've never shown the willingness in a game to roll over and die," said Kyle. "We just grind at it and grind at it until we at least have a chance to win."

The WHL is one of three major junior hockey leagues. The two others are in Quebec and Ontario. The players range in age from 16 to 20, receive no pay other than a stipend for room and board, but are guaranteed a year of college for every year they play in the league.

They are young men who put aside family, and in some cases college, to chase the dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Despite the stereotype, they are for the most part serious athletes and citizens.

And, until recently, Canadian.

"There is no question in my mind," said Kyle, "that there are a hell of a lot of Americans who can play hockey at this level."

Kyle, as a former U.S. national and collegiate coach, has become a magnet. The other two Americans on the T-bird roster are defenseman Jim Burcar from Marquette, Mich.,and Kevin Mylander, a forward from Escanaba, Maine. "Walt is a great coach and a great guy," said Lilley. "I knew he'd gone to Seattle, and I just gave him a call."

But Kyle doesn't explain the emergence of Bonner, the goalie who grew up in Tacoma and learned the game at the Sno-King ice arena in Lynnwood. In the process, his mother learned a lot about driving I-5.

"I had an ice rink in my back yard in New England," said Lilley. "We just played hockey all the time."

Kids around here play all they can, but the time is limited because of the few facilities with ice-making capabilities.

"The ice time is all spoken for," said Williams, who said he would like to build a new arena if he could find appropriate land in the Puget Sound area.

"The new teams in the WHL - Tacoma, Tri-City and Spokane - have provided not only exposure for hockey, but a place where kids can play," said Kyle. "The more teams we get, the more interest there will be."

The WHL is exploring expansion in Eugene, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif., but until Seattle freezes over it is likely the best American talent will still come from where winters are long and icy, and that means recruiting in the Northeast and Midwest.

"Five years ago," said Kyle, "I would have told my son to go to college if he wanted to play in the NHL. Now, I'd tell him to be a part-time college student (as six of the T-birds are) and give hockey the kind of attention you have to by playing major junior."

Be he Canadian - or American.