The Seattle Thunderbirds forward jumps over the boards from his spot on the bench, starting his next shift hunting for the puck in the opponent's defensive zone. Found it. An Everett Silvertips winger, puck on stick, is skating out of his own end. The Seattle forward, Mekai Sanders, catches up with the winger, separating puck and player with a clean shoulder to the chest.
The puck trickles away, picked up by a Seattle teammate now heading on an offensive rush to the Everett goal. Sanders' "check" on the opponent is one of the little things he does on the ice perhaps unnoticed by casual fans but appreciated by his teammates and coaching staff. It is especially valuable in Western Hockey League battles between Seattle and Everett.
"We need guys out there who can skate and keep up with the pace," said Matt O'Dette, Seattle T-Birds head coach, days before the WHL cancelled its playoffs due to COVID-19. "He's one of those guys who can do that. He plays with intensity and tenacity."
For his part, Sanders, 16, is modest about his role and progress in his first year at the WHL juniors level: "I just get out there and hopefully provide a spark for the boys."
While most of his teammates (16 to 20 years old) retreated to be with their families at locales throughout Western Canada, Sanders headed south and not too far: He grew up in Gig Harbor dreaming of playing for the Thunderbirds. He is an example to local youth hockey players who have similar WHL aspirations-making it to the WHL is a clear path to getting drafted by NHL teams and/or earning scholarships to play hockey at North American universities and colleges. As a player of color, Sanders is inspiring and encouraging youngsters from diverse backgrounds to enjoy the sport.
Like all 16-year-olds in the WHL, Sanders started the season looking to make a positive impression and fit in with older, more experienced teammates. He was on hand to learn and improve. Becoming a role model was not on his mind.
"I didn't really think about it until our holiday skate [with fans]," Sanders said. "A little black kid came up to me and said, 'What do you do when there are racial comments?' I talked to him and realized I mean something to these kids and that they look up to me and care about what I have to say. It touched my heart."
When the NHL's Black Hockey History Tour stopped in Seattle in early March, Sanders wanted to visit the truck and mobile museum at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). His schedule with the Thunderbirds didn't allow him to attend and meet Damon Kwame Mason, director of 'Soul On Ice,' a documentary about black players in hockey from the late 1800s to present-day NHL
Mason, part of the NHL tour, said players like Sanders play a vital role in opening the game to a more diverse group of next generation players: "It's so big, because there are these young kids who are going through and experiencing certain things that they may not know how to deal with.
"When they can look up and see somebody (like Mekai Sanders) doing it at a higher level, they can learn something from him. It's [not practical] for a young black player to say to an older white player, 'How do you deal with racial adversity'. That's not a disrespect to anyone, it's just experiences … It's so important to have these role models out there so they can pass on their knowledge to the younger generation."
Sanders fell in love with hockey when his father, Scott, was transferred to North Vancouver for work. He was just five years old, but started playing more with youth hockey programs and ice time readily available. When Sanders and his family moved back to Washington two years later for another job transfer, the hockey habit was ingrained. Sanders played in the Seattle Juniors hockey program.
"It was a bit different," he recalled. "Kids would get done with school and their friends would all play soccer and football. I'd leave school early and go to hockey practice."
In between long car rides to tournaments around the Northwest, Sanders and his family would routinely attend Thunderbirds games at the accesso ShoWare Center. His favorite NHL team is the Washington Capitals because enjoys watching Alex Ovechkin play-join the crowd, Mekai-- the Thunderbirds made the strongest early impact on Sanders.
"I always wanted to be like these guys," Sanders said. "I pointed out guys on the ice, and said 'look at that guy, I want to be like that guy.' "
He's like those guys now. By age 14, Sanders was a standout player with a decision to make about his hockey journey. He was offered an opportunity to play for Detroit Compuware, a youth hockey association that has produced NHLers such as Hall of Famers Eric Lindros and Mike Modano. Tempting, but Michigan is a long way from Gig Harbor and 14 is a tender age to be leaving home. After much family discussion, Sanders made the leap and has no regrets.
"Sometimes you'd miss home, but I was mostly excited," he said. "It was always fun for me. You had a lot of coaches that knew what they were doing. A lot of players are really fast, it's a fast-paced league with a lot of speed. It was a great opportunity to play against some of the best players in America."
As his initial season in Detroit was winding down in 2018, he was hearing from Western Hockey League teams who had interest in possibly selecting him in the league's spring Bantam Draft (which focuses on players who have completed their 14-year-old season). One of those teams was the Thunderbirds.
As draft day came, Sanders parked in front of a laptop at his father's office to watch the draft unfold. In the ninth round, the Thunderbirds selected him, and he quickly signed.
Sanders' Seattle debut was delayed when he suffered a lower-body injury in the team's first preseason game, causing him to miss most of the WHL's first half of the season. He got back on the ice for a New Year's Eve game against the Portland Winterhawks. Four games later, he scored his first WHL goal.
"It was just an unreal feeling," Sanders says of the goal. "Nothing like I'd ever experienced before. I put [the puck] in a case and it's in that case right now."
Sanders played 24 games with Seattle and quickly became a home-crowd favorite. Being a local player helps, but the way he plays is a bigger factor. He skates at a fast pace and shows no fear in throwing a big hit or two.
Sanders is looking forward to improving all aspects of his game as he looks ahead to his second WHL season in the fall. As hockey grows in the Seattle area, Sanders is the latest local player suiting up for a Puget Sound WHL team. He joins Seattle native Brendan Lee in Everett with the Silvertips as locals who were able to stay home to play at the next level. One of NHL Seattle's most important missions is to support regional youth hockey to grow love of the sport plus create more opportunities for top male and female players to stay home while competing at high levels.
Sanders would love to see more players follow suit.
"I think hopefully if I can make a little bit of an impact here and spread some awareness of the WHL and what it's about," he said. "Maybe more kids will be interested in the league."