The Silvertips’ Cole Fonstad drives up the ice during a game against the Thunderbirds in 2019 at the ShoWare Center in Kent. (Brian Liesse / Seattle Thunderbirds)

The Silvertips’ Cole Fonstad drives up the ice during a game against the Thunderbirds in 2019 at the ShoWare Center in Kent. (Brian Liesse / Seattle Thunderbirds)

After lengthy delay, Silvertips return to action Saturday

Players and coaches are thrilled to be able to participate in the abbreviated 24-game season.

At long last, the Silvertips are back.

More than 12 months after they played their last game, the Everett Silvertips are set to open their abbreviated 2021 season Saturday night against the Spokane Chiefs at Angel of the Winds Arena.

After the long layoff, the Tips are especially grateful to be reunited and playing hockey again.

“It’s been great,” Silvertips co-captain Cole Fonstad said. “Obviously (being) away from it for so long, you miss the atmosphere around the guys and stuff. So it’s good to be back on the ice with them and we can’t wait to get going this weekend.”

Saturday’s opener will be Everett’s first game since March 8, 2020 — 377 days ago. The 2019-20 Western Hockey League season was suspended a few days later because of the coronavirus pandemic and then ultimately canceled. It abruptly ended the title aspirations of a Silvertips team that had the league’s second-best record with five regular-season games remaining.

And after that, it was months and months of waiting and uncertainty.

Following an original target start date of Sept. 25, the WHL pushed back its season four times because of the pandemic. For a while, there were doubts as to whether there would be a season at all. But on Feb. 5, following an update from Washington state, the league announced the U.S. Division had the green light to return to action.

“It was definitely hard mentally sometimes to stay in it,” Fonstad said. “But I think we’ve all done a pretty good job of that to continue training hard. And then (it was) a great job by the league and all the owners to make sure we got something going here. So we’re lucky to be playing and we’re just super happy to be back.”

The Silvertips are scheduled to play an abbreviated 24-game regular season that consists exclusively of matchups against the other four U.S. Division teams — the Portland Winterhawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans. That’s considerably shorter than the league’s typical 68-game slate. There hasn’t been an official word yet on whether the WHL will hold a postseason.

The opportunity to play this season is especially important for 20-year-olds across the WHL who are seeking a National Hockey League entry-level contract. For those overagers, this is their last chance to showcase their talents at this level.

Defenseman Gianni Fairbrother, one of the Silvertips’ three 20-year-olds, recently signed an entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens. But the Tips’ other two overagers — wingers Fonstad and Ethan Regnier — are still in pursuit of deals.

“This season being played is just a huge relief and opportunity for the 20-year-olds to have one last chance at it,” fourth-year Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said. “… They have an opportunity to still try to pursue the dream of playing pro hockey and getting a deal.”

One of the many differences this season is the quick ramp-up.

In normal years, the Silvertips typcially have about a month between the start of training camp and the season opener, as well as six or seven preseason games over that span. This year, the Tips had just two weeks of on-ice preparation and no preseason games.

“It’s a little bit different,” Williams said. “We’re not able to hit on everything we want probably in terms of prep. … Unlike other years where we get four or five weeks — a little bit longer time to teach and prep and play games and reteach and go through things — we’re kind of thrown right in the deep end. All teams are, without those exhibitions.”

Day-to-day life off the ice features major differences, too. Instead of living with host families, Silvertips players are staying as the sole residents in a section of an Everett Community College student housing building.

“We’ve got a pretty good setup here, and the meals have been great,” Fonstad said. “It’s been a lot of fun just being around the guys, too. We have a little courtyard that we can all hang out in, so we’re lucky with the setup that we’ve got.”

To add some variety to the players’ day-to-day routine, Williams has orchestrated various team-building activities outside of hockey.

He broke them into teams to work on a large jigsaw puzzle. On an off day, the team found a basketball court to play on. And on St. Patrick’s Day, Williams bought Shamrock Shakes at McDonald’s for each of the 24 players.

“I’ve never ordered 24 milkshakes at McDonald’s before,” he said. “I didn’t realize you could only order 20 at a time, so I had to order four through the drive-through.”

Another major difference will be strikingly evident Saturday night, when the Silvertips will take the ice in front of a mostly empty Angel of the Winds Arena. For at least the time being, no fans will be allowed to attend games.

“We have to generate our own energy,” Williams said. “We (won’t) have our 6,500 to 8,000 fans. It’s real easy to get up for a game at home when you’re in Everett and you’re coming out and the cowbells are going. We have the best fans in the Western Hockey League, and the loudest.

“But now it’s a different challenge,” he added. “And it’s the same challenge for all teams, so it’s the ones that can find that internal drive that (are) probably going to have an advantage.”

With all the challenges and differences this season brings, Williams said he’s thankful to have a strong group of leaders on the team.

“Having those type of guys back, especially in a year that we’re in, we’ve really relied on our leadership group and those guys to continue to do a good job helping (us coaches) mentor and coach the first-year players,” Williams said.

Star goaltender Dustin Wolf is the Silvertips’ most notable returner. The 19-year-old from Tustin, California, was named the Canadian Hockey League’s goaltender of the year last season, meaning he was judged to be the best goalie out of the three leagues and 60 teams that comprise the CHL. Wolf, who signed an entry-level contract with the Calgary Flames last May, led the WHL last season in goals-against average (1.88), save percentage (.935) and shutouts (nine).

“Dustin is one of the best, if not the best, goalies at his age in all of North America,” Williams said.

The Silvertips also return key defensemen Fairbrother and Ronan Seeley from last year’s team, which allowed a WHL-low 142 goals. Seeley, an 18-year-old who was a seventh-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in last year’s NHL draft, provided 29 assists in addition to his defensive contributions. Fairbrother, the recent Montreal entry-level signee who was a third-round draft pick by the Canadiens in 2019, added 20 assists last season before missing the final 23 games with an injury.

Spearheading the Everett attack will be center Gage Goncalves and Fonstad, who were two of the Tips’ top three point producers last season. Goncalves, a second-round pick in last year’s NHL draft, signed an entry-level contract with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in December. He was the second-leading scorer for Everett last season, with 33 goals and 38 assists in 60 games. Fonstad added 13 goals and 52 assists in 51 games for the Tips after being acquired from Prince Albert.

“The guys have been fantastic,” Williams said. “They’ve been competing hard, working hard, coming to the rink every day excited to be there. And I know they’re excited about playing on Saturday.”

After all, it’s been a long wait to reach this point.

“We’re super lucky to be here,” Fonstad said. “And we’re just going to take advantage of it and try to enjoy it as much as we can.”

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