By Andy Eide
There’s under ten minutes to go in the third period during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The score is knotted at four goals apiece and the Vegas faithful packed into T-Moble Arena are testing their collective nerves. Golden Knights’ defenseman Shea Theodore gets the puck at the blue line and quickly avoids a challenge from Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly. Theodore escapes along the boards and with his head up whistles a seeing-eye pass across the ice. The puck eludes two more Capitals sticks to reach Theodore’s teammate Tomas Nosek. The big winger bangs home the puck in what turns out to be the game-winning marker.
The crowd erupts and lets loose all the pent-up tension that the game had built up. It was the first season in the NHL for the Golden Knights and they had just taken a one-game lead on the sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s unbelievable,” Theodore said of that moment and the atmosphere in the building for the Final. “I get goose bumps talking about it. Growing up as a kid that’s the one thing, you play to win the Stanley Cup and when you’re in the final it’s do or die. You have a chance to win it and it was a lot of fun.”
Unfortunately for Theodore and the Golden Knights, that third period goal would be the high-water mark for the series as the Capitals would go on to win the next four and the Cup. But, for a first-year franchise, getting to the Stanley Cup Final is an impressive mark to reach.
Theodore, who is spending his off season working out in Vancouver, says getting that close just fuels the fire this summer.
“You always want to be there and end up winning,” he added. “I think we definitely got a taste of what its like and I think that will drive us that much further going into next year.”
Fans of the Seattle Thunderbirds, and the Western Hockey League, have seen Theodore make many similar plays to the one that set up Nosek’s goal. The smooth skating blue-liner spent four seasons with the Thunderbirds from 2011 to 2015. He delighted fans with his mad end-to-end rushes, precise passing, and blinding speed.
He impressed early as a 16-year-old in 2011 with 31 assists and would go on to rack up 58 goals and 212 points in 257 games with Seattle to set a franchise mark for defenseman scoring. The Anaheim Ducks selected him in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft and he finished his junior career with the Thunderbirds being named the WHL Defenseman of the Year in 2015.
Last summer he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights during the expansion draft. The move was somewhat of a surprise for the 22-year-old.
“I knew that I couldn’t have been picked in the expansion draft so I wasn’t really expecting much,” he said. “To be traded was a little bit of a shock but after a couple of days I was very excited with the organization, the direction we were going, and it couldn’t have turned out better.”
Theodore’s start in the pros was the very definition of up and down.
He started in the American Hockey League with San Diego in 2015 but was routinely recalled by the Ducks, only to be sent back down a short time later. With Vegas, he started last year back in the AHL in Chicago thanks to some roster maneuvering the Golden Knights had to do. He only spent eight games there, while racking up 11 points, before returning to Vegas for good.
Having some stability was a welcome change for Theodore.
“When I was in Anaheim, going up and down that many times, I was in a hotel,” he said. “To be able to rent a house, I lived with (Alex) Tuch this past year, to be able to settle and have a place to call home was good. It helped with me getting more comfortable with the team and being a regular.”
As a regular with the Golden Knights he appeared in 61 games and scored six goals while adding 23 assists. He appeared in 20 more playoff games that saw him find the net three times while picking up 10 points.
He also got to experience the excitement of hockey in Vegas, both in the preseason – before the world saw what a story it would be – and as the momentum built throughout the regular season and playoffs.
While the team was winning games on the ice, the Golden Knights developed a tremendous atmosphere in T-Mobile Arena. Lavish pre-game shows that featured sword fights, drum lines, and lots of neon lights became the norm and fired up the crowd.
As a player in the dressing room during the show Theodore says he only got to witness the fun a couple of times. But, he raves about the crowds he and his teammates played in front of.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s amazing to see the show that they put out and how the fans get into it. It puts everyone in their seats for puck drop, which is always good.”
Prior to the professional ranks, Theodore left Seattle, and the Thunderbirds, the year before they went on to make two appearances in the WHL Championship Series. He played with the core group that would ultimately win the championship in 2017 and says that he enjoyed watching his former buddies win.
“It was fun to have them be that special of a team and to go that far,” he said. “I was keeping in touch with Jerret Smith and it was exciting to see. To see them in the Memorial Cup was fun to watch.”
Several his former Seattle mates have now worked their way into pro hockey as well.
This past spring, he got to play against former Thunderbird Ethan Bear, who ended last season in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. At camp with Vegas, Theodore was reunited with former teammate Keegan Kolesar, who is now in the Golden Knights system.
Then in February of last year, Theodore was on the ice a great deal against Mathew Barzal and the New York Islanders during a regular season game in Las Vegas. The Islanders came out on top that night, but the two ex-Seattle stars enjoyed playing against each other.
“It was a lot of fun,” Theodore said of the game. “I played with him quite a bit in Seattle. We had a couple laughs and when he’s out there he’s a good player and can make things happen. It was good to talk to him after the game and tell him how badly you shut him down. That was my goal, to not make it easy for him.”
Having spent four years playing hockey in Seattle, Theodore is looking forward to coming back to play an NHL game in the city.
He understandably gets asked a lot about the prospect of the NHL coming to the Emerald City and he feels that it will be a success.
“It was exciting when they had the whole ticket drive going on and they raised all those tickets,” Theodore said of the NHL in Seattle. “Its definitely a city that the NHL will thrive in. I always loved being in Seattle and it will be fun when it gets there.”
When it comes to equaling the marketing and successful fan experience that Vegas had in Seattle, Theodore says he’ll leave that up to the folks working for the NHL Seattle group.
“That’s their job to try and do something,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve seen what Vegas did and it will be interesting to see what Seattle does.”
Theodore is still just scratching at the start of his hockey career. At a young age he’s already played in some big moments. That includes a gold medal win at the World Junior Championships, a trip to the Western Conference Final with Anaheim, and now a Stanley Cup Final appearance with Vegas.
While he’s looking forward to the future, he’s aware of how unique of an experience last season’s inaugural run in Vegas was and surely its something he won’t forget.
“With the group of guys we had, we were such a team,” Theodore said of the Golden Knights. “At the end of the day nobody expected us to get there. To be able to go that far and just enjoy every moment of the team was really special.”