Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers

Thunderbirds rolling after recruiting Ross

Frozen ponds and backyard rinks in small towns form the fabric of North American hockey and have woven with some amazing stories. There’s a reason why Parry Sound (Bobby Orr), Anahim Lake (Carey Price) and Port Hood (Al MacInnis) are so well known among hockey fans.

Meadow Lake, Sask. might not have produced Hall of Fame talent yet, but they can still claim former NHLers Dwight King, Jeff Friesen and Blake Comeau — along with a few others — as their own.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, goaltender Roddy Ross of the Seattle Thunderbirds could add his name to that list.

“I couldn’t imagine a better place to start off my career than in Meadow Lake,” said Ross. “It’s a great hockey town.”

Whether it be on the nearby frozen lake or on the pad in his backyard designed by his dad, Ross fell in love with the game at a young age after spending days on end playing hockey with his friends.

At an early age, Ross didn’t care much for the bright lights of the Western Hockey League. All he wanted to do was play for the same local senior men’s league team that his dad, Marty, did.

“I remember there were decent crowds at his games. I wanted to play in that league so I could play in front of those same crowds,” recalled Ross.

Eventually, through the internet and television, Ross became aware that there was more to hockey than the Meadow Lake Stampeders.

He had a slightly different dream than the other kids. He was planning on passing up the WHL for a chance to head south to play for school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

“Getting a good education is something my parents always talked to me about. We both thought that getting an education was a good backup plan in case professional hockey never worked out,” said Ross.

Growing up, Ross was passed over by every provincial and national team available. Whether it was because he was playing in a remote location or certain teams were afraid of the NCAA rumours, he slipped through the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.

Despite all that, Ross never held any grudges. He just put his head down and kept working.

Even after getting released by the Lloydminster Bobcats midget AAA team in 2016, Ross kept grinding. As a 16-year-old, he landed a gig as the starter with the Onion Lake Border Chiefs of the North Eastern Junior B Hockey League.

Similarly to the Meadow Lake house league teams, Ross was exposed to an avalanche of shots with the Border Chiefs. As the youngest starter in the league, he played the sixth-most minutes and recorded the fifth-most saves, 656. The win-loss record and save percentage (6-10-1, .904) wasn’t as important as the amount of rubber he was eating.

“When we watched him in Onion Lake, we saw this raw, lanky kid that might have scared off a couple other teams with his fundamentals,” said Tisdale Trojans Head Coach Darrell Mann. “We liked his athleticism and invited him to camp. We were blown away by what he could do on the ice.”

Roddy Ross accepted his team MVP award from Tisdale Trojans Assistant Coach Colin Ruether. Photo courtesy of the Tisdale Trojans.

Finally arriving to the midget triple-A ranks with the Trojans, Ross took the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League (SMHL) by storm. It didn’t take long for scouts at the next level to notice.

“There wasn’t much interest in our team at the beginning. But come Christmas time, our stands were packed with WHL and Junior A scouts, all watching Roddy,” said Mann. “He was playing amazing.”

Ross backstopped a young Trojan outfit to 29-10-0 record while posting a league-best .940 save percentage and the fourth-best goals against average of 1.85.

Away from the rink, Ross enjoyed the perks of starring in a small town. Fans were quick to recognize him and compliment him on his strong play.

“I loved the fans there. They made it a great team to play for. I loved my time with the Trojans,” said Ross, who was named to the First Team All-Star squad and won the SMHL Goalie MVP award for the 2017-18 season.

Eventually, WHL offers started rolling in. To Ross’ knowledge, the Spokane Chiefs and Saskatoon Blades listed him at one point. The Red Deer Rebels were also rumoured to list the 6-foot-4 puckstopper.

Ross reportedly also received training camp invites from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Prince Albert Raiders, Tri-City Americans, Blades and Chiefs. He turned them all down and never budged from his stance on the NCAA.

For Ross, the only camp he was concerned about was with the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

“It just wasn’t in my mind to go play in the WHL. It was never a thought of mine,” said Ross.

Ross’ resume of three-straight years with a save percentage in the 900s at varying levels of prairie hockey and development of skills solidified his spot on the Kodiaks roster to start the season. He was finally at the level where he knew he belonged.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,400 kilometres (850 miles) away, the Thunderbirds struggled to find consistency under first-year GM Bil La Forge.

Previously with the Everett Silvertips for the past four seasons, La Forge spent the first half of this season evaluating his new club.

The T-birds broke for the holiday season at 10-17-4-0, within shouting distance of a wildcard spot.

Only two years removed from hoisting their first Ed Chynoweth Cup, La Forge made the moves he felt were necessary to turn his team into a playoff team now and in the years to come.

“We decided to do a reset with our roster and regain some excitement in our dressing room,” said La Forge. “We made sure to retain some older guys and a few character guys that would help the transition process. The moves we made allowed some younger guys to play bigger minutes, which we think will be instrumental for them moving forward.”

Headed out the door was sniper Zack Andrusiak and blue liner Reece Harsch. La Forge also pulled the trigger on a deal that sent his starting netminder, Liam Hughes, to the Hurricanes.

Trading away starting goalies in the middle of a season for a team pushing for a playoff spot is a rarity. La Forge was afforded that opportunity because he had tip on a goaltending prospect.

Back in September, La Forge received a call from a trusty source: Lindsey Leckelt, co-owner of the Thunderbirds with his brother, Dan.

Photo courtesy of Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers.

Lindsey recently watched one of his other clubs he co-owns, the defending AJHL champion Spruce Grove Saints, earn a rather difficult 2-1 preseason victory against the Kodiaks. Leckelt mentioned that the Kodiaks had a goaltender worth keeping an eye on: Ross.

La Forge knew right away who he was talking about. He brought up Ross’ name with the Silvertips last year, but needless to say, they were set up pretty well in net.

But now in a new situation, La Forge wanted to follow his owner’s suggestion.

“I watched some of his games earlier this year and did my research. Eventually, we decided that he was a pretty good prospect for us,” said La Forge.

Even in the junior ranks, Ross’ stat lines were pretty consistent with everything else he had accomplished. Through 18 games, he was 7-7-4 with a 3.07 goals against and a .927 save percentage.

Ross still believed the NCAA was the route for him. Knowing his about his post-secondary plans, the rookie GM wanted another shot at prairie product and pursued him one last time.

“I started talking to him over the phone a few times. He told me a lot about the program, what they were trying to accomplish and eventually they brought me in for a visit,” said the 18-year-old Ross.

Somewhere in there, all of Ross’ beliefs flipped.

“I just decided that the WHL was where I wanted to be. Nobody made this decision for me, it was something I finally felt needed to be done,” said Ross. “I’ve heard a few stories about how guys avoided the WHL so they could go to school in the States and they regretted it. I didn’t want to look back in a few years and regret anything.”

Joining the Thunderbirds in the new year on their eastern swing, Ross made an instant impact. After getting his feet wet in a relief appearance for Cole Schwebuis, Ross won his first two starts.

His impactful run began when he turned away 19 shots against the Regina Pats for his first career win. For an encore in front of family and friends, he posted 32 saves and stymied the former No. 1 team in the country, the Raiders.

“He caught everyone’s attention with that win. He really gave this dressing room and our organization confidence moving forward,” said La Forge. “That was probably the turning point of our season.”

Rolling with Ross, the Thunderbirds wrapped up that eastern road trip with a 5-2-0-1 record, solidifying the bond in the dressing room.

“Roddy has been the key guy for us in our transition,” said Thunderbirds Head Coach Matt O’Dette. “Roddy is really calm and collected in net. I think his energy has helped settle down our defensive core.”

As much as the other pieces La Forge brought in assisted in the turn around, Ross is doing most of the heavy lifting. For his efforts, Ross was named the Rookie of the Month for January.

After the ink dried on his contract on New Year’s Day, Ross proceeded to go 6-1-0-1 with 2.30 goals-against-average and stopped 235 of 255 shots for a 0.922 save percentage in January.

The Thunderbirds didn’t stop there. Their momentum spilled into the home stretch and the T-Birds have gone 10-7-2-1 since their eastern trip. They have catapulted into the playoff picture and currently sit seven points up on the Kamloops Blazers in the second wildcard spot.

“Roddy doesn’t get fazed by much. He’s not flopping around back there and he’s calm in his movements. For a bigger guy, he moves well and battles on every shot,” said O’Dette.

Ross’ resiliency was on display during one of their latest playoff-like games, when they arrived at the Sandman Centre on March 1, three points up on the host Blazers.

Uncharacteristically, Ross surrendered four goals in the opening two frames. The Thunderbirds took the lead in the third and Ross shut the door, neutralizing a Blazer blitz.

His finest of 42 saves that evening came in the dying minutes when his sliding blocker save denied Zane Franklin on the doorstep, preserving the two-goal lead.

“We have needed some big saves from him since he’s been here and he’s delivered on every opportunity,” said O’Dette.

Ross turned around the following night and cranked out a 40-save performance in an overtime 1-0 loss to the Silvertips. The Thunderbirds then doubled the Tri-City Americans 6-3 Sunday evening to collect their fifth point during an adverse three-in-three weekend, much to Ross’ delight.

Photo courtesy of Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers.

“This was the best decision of my life. I’m having so much fun here,” said Ross. “Everywhere we go, I love sitting in the stands before the game and realizing how far I’ve made it. These barns are much nicer than the ones I grew up in. I love playing in front of big crowds, especially on the road when they can get on you a little bit. I can’t wait until playoff time.

“I sit at home at night and just smile. I’m so glad this all worked out. I’m having the time of my life.”

Should Ross keep this pace up and carry out his dream of playing in the show one day, the great Canadian hockey town of Meadow Lake could add another name to their long list of homegrown NHL products.

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