Tij Iginla: Returning home to the Okanagan
It’s only fitting that the next time Tij Iginla steps on the ice for a game, it will be on the same surface he last played on. The newest Kelowna Rockets forward last dressed on April 5th at Prospera Place when the Seattle Thunderbirds eliminated the Rockets from the postseason in game four of their first-round matchup.
Seattle had a deep run that saw the Thunderbirds capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup and make it to the final game of the 2023 Memorial Cup, but on a team stacked with three 20-year-olds and eleven 19-year-olds, ice time for a 16-year-old player like Iginla would be limited.
Selected ninth overall by Seattle at the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft, Iginla cracked an already deep Thunderbirds roster that made it to the WHL Championship Final a season ago during the 2021-22 season.
While he spent most of the spring as a healthy scratch, Iginla says there was lots for him to take away from being on a team that featured ten drafted NHL prospects, six Canadian World Junior gold medalists and another six ranked players for the upcoming 2023 NHL Draft.
“It has definitely been cool to play with guys that are going to play in the NHL sooner than later,” said Iginla in a telephone interview earlier this week. “Guys like Dylan Guenther and Brad Lambert are really offensive talents that I want to be like myself, so that’s been a cool experience to have.”
One bright spot came in November when he had the chance to play at the 2022 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, where he was surrounded by some of the best up-and-coming 2006-born players. He was placed on Canada Red alongside 2021 WHL Prospects Draft first overall pick Berkley Catton, 2022 OHL first overall pick Michael Misa and Porter Martone, the fifth overall pick in the 2o22 OHL Draft.
In the end, Canada Red fell to the United States in the gold medal game, but Ignila showed flashes of his skill throughout the tournament, posting seven points (2G, 5A) over seven games.
As Seattle loaded up their roster throughout the season by making trades, Iginla’s role become more and more limited.
In the end, he posted 18 points (6G, 12A) through 48 games as their lone 16-year-old forward on the squad. He appeared in an additional three playoff games, all against Kelowna, recording an assist.
Iginla admitted that the lack of chances to play was frustrating at times, but thinks that the experience has helped him grow as a player.
“I didn’t get as much opportunity as I would have liked. I think I developed a lot of grit and perseverance this year, it’s been a tough year for me, but I think it will pay off for me in the long run.”
Seattle’s season came to an end on Sunday as the QMJHL-champion Quebec Remparts defeated the WHL-champion Thunderbirds 5-0 to win the Memorial Cup in Kamloops.
The Thunderbirds headed back to Kent, WA to celebrate their WHL championship with their fans on Tuesday evening at the accesso ShoWare Center. Iginla said that it was nice to be able to spend time with the fans and his teammates as a group one last time before they were set to go home for summer.
“It was really cool, obviously it was hard not getting the chance to play down the stretch, but it was a fun celebration with the fans. It was nice to see the guys who will be moving on, I’ll be moving on as well, so saying my goodbyes. Hopefully, I’ll see them down the road here soon.”
Less than 24 hours after the T-Birds celebration, it was announced on Wednesday that the Kelowna Rockets had acquired the Lake Country, BC product from Seattle.
“I’m very, very excited to join the Rockets. I’m super excited to get to play at home again, I think it will make the transition a little bit easier.”
The Iginla family is very familiar with the Kelowna, having called the Okanagan home for a long time.
He is the son of 2020 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jarome Iginla, who is no stranger to the Rockets and Blazers rivalry having spent three seasons with Kamloops from 1993-1996. Tij is also the brother of Brown University forward Jade Iginla, 2023 Edmonton Oil Kings draftee Joe Iginla.
For the last two seasons, Jarome has coached at RINK Hockey Academy Kelowna. All three Iginla kids have spent time playing at RINK, with Jade and Tij suiting up during the 2021-22 season, while Joe has spent the last two seasons at RINK.
When it comes to Rockets players, Iginla is well versed in current and former players that he’s crossed paths with.
Tij got to know Rockets prospect, defenceman Landon Cowper quite well when they were teammates on RINK’s U18 team during the 2021-22 season. During the 2021 WHL Cup, Iginla was teammates with Hiroki Gojsic—whose rights were acquired last week from Victoria and has signed to join the Rockets for next season. The trio of Iginla, Cowper and Gojsic, all born in 2006, are expected to be a big part of the Rockets future.
He was teammates with Ethan Mittelsteadt and Ty Hurley in Seattle before they were dealt to the Rockets in January. In the summers, he has trained with veteran players such as Dylan Wightman, Jackson DeSouza and former players including Mark Liwiski and Elias Carmichael.
Iginla also knows former Rockets captain Colton Dach. The two were teammates with the Thunderbirds and Dach’s cousin, Victoria Royals 2023 WHL Prospects fourth overall pick Keaton Verhoeff, lived with the Iginla family this past year.
“There’s a little bit of a tie in there, Colton’s cousin billeted with my family this year, Keaton and my brother both played on my dad’s RINK team.
“Me and Dacher are pretty good buddies, he is a really nice guy and I enjoyed getting to know him over the last few months. Hopefully, I get to play a little bit of golf with him this summer when he’s in Kelowna visiting.”
For Iginla now, his focus has shifted to preparing for next season with Kelowna. Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton didn’t mince words in the trade announcement, stating that Iginla will get the chance to play a bigger role than he did this past season.
“We’re excited to have the chance to acquire a player like Tij,” said Hamilton in the release. “He has a full season in the Western Hockey League as a 16-year-old under his belt. We gave up a lot in first, third and fifth-round picks to get him, but we think he will be one of the top players on our team.
“He’s a great skater with great hockey sense, who shoots the puck well. He’s exactly who we’re looking for in the makeup of our team in trying to get faster. With the personnel that we have, he adds to the group of elite players that can play in our top six.”
Heading into his NHL Draft year, Tij said that improving all of his game is the plan this offseason.
“I think I’m going to work on everything this summer,” said Iginla. “Hopefully, I grow a little bit. I’m trying to have a well-rounded summer in terms of getting stronger and faster in the weight room, adding in a lot of skill training.”
Having been a part of the Thunderbirds, Iginla has seen what it takes to win a championship. With the Rockets additions via trades and the draft over the last few weeks, he’s excited to play for his hometown team that has been busy building a dynamic core of players.
“I’m looking forward to joining the team, the Rockets have some really good players in the system and I hope that we have a really good team here for years to come.”