Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge watches a game against his former team, the Silvertips, on Feb. 1, 2019, at ShoWare Center in Kent. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge watches a game against his former team, the Silvertips, on Feb. 1, 2019, at ShoWare Center in Kent. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

One man has eased rivalry divide between Tips and T-birds

With former Everett personnel man Bil La Forge in as Seattle GM, the rivalry is heated, not hated.

KENT — While the first beats of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” pumped across the public address system for pregame introductions, Bil La Forge made his entrance into the ShoWare Center press box for Friday night’s Western Hockey League game between the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds.

Sporting a charcoal-colored suit with black-leather sneakers and his trademark Buddy Holly glasses, La Forge made his way to his spot on press row. Although he was wearing a plaid tie tinged with Thunderbird blue, the first thing he did upon arriving at his seat was greet Silvertip scratch Riley Sutter with a smile and a handshake.

Meet the man who has crossed the Everett-Seattle rivalry divide.

La Forge, the longtime head of Everett’s scouting department, is in his first season as Seattle’s general manager. And amidst the backdrop of this weekend’s home-and-home set between the Tips and T-birds, La Forge is demonstrating that just because a rivalry is heated doesn’t mean it has to be hated.

“It’s different,” La Forge said about crossing the battle lines. “It’s not a traditional move, I guess you’d say, not a lot of people have done it. I don’t have anything but good things to say about my time (with Everett), but I’m a Thunderbird now, and it’s definitely a rivalry.

“I know all the kids over there, I know the whole staff. You want to beat your friends.”

La Forge spent a decade in the Everett organization. He was hired as an Alberta-area scout in 2008, elevated to head scout in 2011 and promoted to director of player personnel in 2014. As the conductor of Everett’s bantam drafts he played an important role in building the teams that have had so much success the past five seasons. His credentials certainly warranted consideration for WHL GM openings.

But Seattle? Who could have predicted the T-birds would tab an Everett man to run their franchise? The Everett-Seattle rivalry dates all the way back to 2002 when Bill Yuill, then Seattle’s owner, opted for an expansion franchise in Everett rather than his original plan of moving the T-birds 30 miles north. Since then Everett and Seattle, the WHL’s closest neighbors until the T-birds relocated to Kent in 2009, developed a bitter rivalry, with games characterized by big hits and after-the-whistle activity. It only heated up as the Tips and T-birds met in the playoffs four of the past five years.

But despite the teams’ rivalry, Seattle owners Dan and Lindsey Leckelt had no hesitation about reaching out to Everett to inquire about La Forge when seeking a new GM last offseason. It helped that all three played hockey together at Concordia College in Edmonton, Alberta. But so did the Tips’ impressive track record in the bantam draft during the years La Forge was calling the shots.

“(Everett general manager) Garry Davidson is very well respected in hockey, and I know that Bil would have picked up a lot from Garry over the years,” Dan Leckelt said. “When I talked to Garry to get permission to talk to Bil, Garry was very forthcoming about trying to get Bil to the next level, just like getting his players and staff to the next level.”

Though La Forge’s Everett roots mean he can be the subject of some playful ribbing around the office.

“All the time,” Dan Leckelt said. “His big thing is he had to get a whole new wardrobe because the only clothes he ever wore were Everett clothes.”

One way to illustrate the thaw between the franchises is through the trade activity between the teams. Between June 4, 2003, the date of Everett’s expansion draft, and Oct. 6, 2012, the Tips executed 69 trades. Not a single one was with Seattle. Between Oct. 7 2012 and the end of 2018 there were four deals between the teams, but each was about finding a spot for a player for whom there was no room on the roster.

But with La Forge in charge in Seattle the teams made their first significant trade in 16 seasons on New Year’s Day, with the Tips acquiring overage forward Zack Andrusiak in exchange for overage forward Sean Richards and a collection of bantam draft picks and prospects.

That type of deal doesn’t happen without La Forge, who remains close with Davidson, in place.

“It probably would have been more difficult, no question about it,” Davidson acknowledged. “The bottom line is I think Bil’s relationship with myself got that done.”

La Forge is already putting his stamp on the T-birds organization. Seattle traditionally has been known for having big, bruising teams. La Forge aims to change that, following the blueprint laid down by Davidson when he arrived in Everett in 2012, prioritizing speed of foot and speed of thought.

And trading in his Silvertips green for Thunderbird blue? No regrets.

“I love it,” La Forge said. “Love the area, the staff here is incredible. I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be in a better spot.”

Davidson has no regrets, either.

“I wish him all the best and great success — other than when he comes to play against Everett.”

After the final horn sounded Friday and Seattle had lost 5-2, La Forge didn’t pound the counter in frustration or mutter expletives. Instead he remained seated for several minutes, busily jotting notes into his tablet. But he pulled away for a moment to again grasp hands with Sutter as Sutter hobbled his way out of the press box.

Indeed, with La Forge now in place, the rivalry divide between Everett and Seattle is just a little less wide.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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