After playing for three other clubs, Keltie Jeri-Leon found a home with the Thunderbirds. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)
It felt like a run-of-the-mill practice for the Lethbridge Hurricanes on New Year’s Eve of 2018. Keltie Jeri-Leon came off the ice and was told by the coaches that he needed to go see general manager Pete Anholt. He didn’t think anything of the meeting but found out that he had been traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“It was completely blind to me. I didn’t know I was getting traded,” Jeri-Leon says. “It was a shock to me at first.”
This was becoming familiar to Jeri-Leon, who was 18 years old at the time.
Seattle would be his fourth WHL team after starting with the Tri-City Americans in 2016-2017. The following season he would play for three clubs as he saw time with the Americans, Kamloops Blazers, and the Hurricanes. He had played 30 games to open the 2018-2019 campaign prior to Seattle calling.
Lethbridge was starting to feel like home, finally.
“I had great billets there and it is a great organization,” Jeri-Leon says. “I was feeling comfortable, but you flip it and another team really wants you. You make a positive out of it.”
He would play 39 games for the Thunderbirds over the second half of the 2018-2019 season and recorded 10 points.
With no further trades, he was set in Seattle at the start of last season and became one of the Thunderbirds top offensive players. He set career highs with 23 goals and 41 points in his first full year with the club. As he prepares this week for his final season in the WHL, the 20-year-old has finally found a home.
“For some guys, it just takes a little bit more time for all the pieces to fall in place,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette says of Jeri-Leon, who will be Seattle’s lone over-aged player this year. “It’s finding the right situation; Seattle was that right situation. It starts with him being a high character kid, top-of-the-line character, and work ethic. Such a good guy to be around our young group.”
Jeri-Leon was consistent in his effort last season and had an impact. He scored big goals and contributed on the power-play, scoring six times for another career-high.
It was easy for him to find his groove.
“I just think from the staff to the players we had such a great group,” Jeri-Leon says. “It was easy to come to the rink and play hard for each other. I found some chemistry with (Henrik Rybinski) and (Conner Roulette). It gave me some confidence and I just rolled with it.”
That chemistry gave the Thunderbirds a true top scoring line, something the club had been searching for in the first half of the season.
The three took off and were a big reason for the team playing better in the second half to get back into a playoff spot by the season’s end. While Jeri-Leon found his scoring touch, his contribution off the ice was just as important.
Seattle had one of the youngest lineups in the CHL and Jeri-Leon took on a leadership role, showing the rookies the way forward.
“Everyone on the team is equal,” Jeri-Leon says. “It doesn’t matter your age, where you’re from, or where you are in the lineup. Everyone deserves to be there. I remember when I was a young guy there were guys who picked you up and helped you. Those are the guys you remember.
“We’re probably younger this year so it’s going to be huge for me to step up and lead by example. Just help out and give a helping hand where it’s needed.”
O’Dette has yet to announce the team captain for the season and whether he’s wearing the ‘C’ or not, Jeri-Leon will play a critical role in the leadership of another young crop of promising rookies.
“It’s tough for young guys when they move away from home and don’t know what to expect,” O’Dette says “To have a guy like Keltie take guys under his wing is huge and it’s important to have leaders. A guy like that can carry the culture and shift the culture. What he started last year became contagious.
“It rubbed off on guys like (Matthew) Rempe and Roulette, staying late on the ice and in the gym. We had to kick those guys off the ice. That’s the kind of culture you want to have. When you have more guys on that side of the fence, good things are going to happen.”
The shortened 24-game season this year is focused on development for Seattle’s and all WHL players.
For a while, in the offseason, the prospect of any season looked bleak. That had an effect on players throughout the league as they scrambled to find ice time. Getting games in this year will be critical for NHL Draft eligible players and the incoming rookies but it’s equally important for Jeri-Leon.
He still has aspirations to find a pro contract for next season or to land himself in college and continue playing. So, while he’ll be a valuable leader in the Thunderbirds dressing room, he still has something to play for himself.
As the start of the season was being pushed back on three occasions, the worry rose.
Finally, the league found a way to go after gaining approval from the State of Washington much to the relief of Jeri-Leon and it’s going to start in just ten days. Jeri-Leon says the time off was a learning experience to not take hockey for granted.
“You have to think about it like sometimes you’re in a hard practice and you think it sucks,” he says. “During the time off you’d do anything to be back in that moment. Just being part of a team, going through all the ups and downs, the bus rides, and everything. Every little moment this year we’re going to be more appreciative of.”
Jeri-Leon will be back on the ice with the Thunderbirds on March 19th when they host the Portland Winterhawks at the ShoWare Center. There will be no fans in the arena and the players will have to generate their own energy.
You can bet Jeri-Leon will be a part of that energy to not only help his team but put a stamp on his last WHL season.
“I’m coming into these games and trying to play my game, play the team’s way to help us win,” he says. “Yes, there’s no playoffs but every game still matters. You’ve got to perform, and nobody wants to lose. I think at the end of the day with the young core we have there’s a great potential for us to really make a mark.”