During his fifth game playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds, Gabe Ludwig scored his first Western Hockey League goal last weekend, knocking in a rebound against the Portland Winterhawks. Score one for the WHL rookie and his home state of Alaska.
"I can't believe it went in," says Ludwig, who turned 17 just a month ago. "We needed that goal for the team so much. The game outcome wasn't exactly what we wanted but the momentum at that time, it was big."
The Thunderbirds dropped a 7-4 decision despite Ludwig's heroics, but the rookie is a big part of Seattle's surprising 4-2 start to the season. He is tied for second in scoring among Thunderbirds rookies with the inaugural goal and two assists in six games. Seattle plays Everett (5-1) at Angel of the Winds Arena Friday after handing the Silvertips their first loss of the season Wednesday.
Seattle's hockey operations group has been high on Ludwig's upside since they selected him in the second round of the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft - an annual draft in which WHL teams pick the best 15-year-old players from Western Canada and United States. So far, he's lived up to the expectations.
Getting to Seattle wasn't easy. The remoteness of Alaska can make it challenging for youth hockey players to gain the same exposure as teens in the continental U.S. or Canada. Ludwig's skill set turned heads from afar, especially among the Thunderbirds scouts.
"The people in the program he played with, they made sure those kids were exposed and entered tournaments our guys could see," says Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge. "With video now it's easier to scout a wide range of players but the credit goes to his minor hockey association for exposing those kids."
The oldest of five hockey-playing brothers growing up in Eagle River, AK, Ludwig's skating drew Seattle's scouts to him. It only takes watching him play one shift to notice his speed. He's routinely the fastest player on the ice, despite competing in the WHL with players who can be two to three years older.
Ludwig says there is a preponderance of pond hockey in Alaska. His elite skating makes some sense as he logged an enormous amount of ice time as an Alaskan youngster. That said, his journey on the blades started in a less than obvious locale.
When Ludwig was three years old, his father, Steve, was stationed in Little Rock, AR, while training to be a pilot in the Alaska National Guard. Steve grew up with hockey in Minnesota and played for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
When he discovered a Little Rock rink that offered a learn-to-skate program, he quickly signed up Gabe. The two would spend hours on the ice together, bonding while Gabe learned to navigate the ice at what was known as The Arkansas Skatium.
"Three days a week it was open ice, and nobody was there because it's Arkansas," Gabe Ludwig says. "I remember I could only skate with one leg. I would lean on my stick and push with one leg. I learned hockey from my dad ... He built a rink in our backyard [after moving the family to Alaska]. He did a lot for us."
Back in Alaska, father and son continued to enjoy hockey with the younger Ludwig eventually learning to skate with two legs. Steve would play in men's leagues with his oldest son in tow, watching.
"It was our way to play," Steve Ludwig says. "Just go outside with sticks, mini sticks, pass the puck on the driveway. It was just our way to go and play together."
With five hockey-playing kids, the Ludwig family is obviously involved in a lot of minor youth hockey games, tournaments and associations. It's all part of a close-knit and robust hockey community in and around Anchorage, of which Eagle River is a suburb.
At the heart of that community are the Seawolves of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA). The program has been jeopardized by state budget cuts, but local boosters and community members worked hard to get more time to raise enough funds--$3 million-to save the program.
Kraken ownership has donated more than $150,000 and the franchise is actively involved in raising the remaining $1 million. Find out more and donate at saveseawolfhockey.com.
"UAA is big for the hockey community," Gabe Ludwig says about his dad's alma mater. "A lot of our coaches are UAA alumni. It's unfortunate that if we're not going to have a program in the future it's going to change the whole culture. A lot of people learn hockey from UAA, and hockey just won't be the same. It'd be like taking an NHL team out of a town."
Surrounding the university is a loyal hockey scene that supports young players and roots hard for the ones who advance to higher levels of the sport. Local heroes include former New Jersey Devils forward Scott Gomez and center Nate Thompson, currently playing for the Winnipeg Jets. Both Gomez and Thompson have achieved legendary status among Alaskan kids playing hockey.
"They're a big deal and we all idolize them and look up to them," Ludwig says. "At least for me the big names are Nate Thompson, he played in Seattle and I have that Thunderbirds connection. Scotty Gomez, he has a big impact on hockey in Alaska."
Ludwig got to know Thompson, who grew up in Anchorage and played junior hockey for the Thunderbirds from 2001 to 2005, when he reached out to get advice about whether he should play in the WHL.
He listened to the advice and the two have stayed in communication over the past year. When Thompson heard about Ludwig's first goal, he congratulated his fellow Alaskan on Twitter.
"We're always rooting for other Alaskans and we always want to see others do well," Thompson said this week. "It's good for the state and its good for the sport. I hope Gabe's that next guy and it has a huge impact.
"I know for myself when I was a younger guy coming up in minor hockey, even before Scott Gomez was in the NHL, we all followed him. All the kids in Alaska at that time were so excited and wanted to do the same thing as Scotty did, so it only has a positive impact on all the kids up there."
How far Ludwig takes his hockey career is yet to be seen, but he's off to a good start.
He's playing in one of the world's best development leagues and could well end up on the NHL Draft radar in 2022 when he's eligible.
For now, he's going to keep developing with the Thunderbirds, keep learning and keep representing Alaska proudly. And probably keep in touch with Thompson.
"It's been amazing," says Ludwig about his late-starting first season in the WHL. "This is probably the most fun I've had in hockey. This level is unbelievable. I feel like I'm a pro the way they're treating us and I'm just soaking up so much information. I feel like I'm getting better every day and the coaching staff is so great."