By Andy Eide
During his senior year in high school, Jimmy Frey wasn’t your average Seattle area student. Rather than focusing on playing traditional sports like football, basketball, soccer or baseball, he was manning the blue line for the Seattle Junior Totems. Now three years later, at age 20, he’s half way through his last season in junior hockey.
“It’s not the normal thing to do here in Seattle,” he says. “All my friends ended up going to college and stuff and I’m just still living the junior hockey dream. It’s been fun.”
Frey is hoping to attend Eastern Washington University next year, and play for their club hockey team, but still has some unfinished business with the Totems. He got into hockey thanks to his father’s passion for the game and by attending Seattle Thunderbirds games at Key Arena.
From there he played hockey as a youth for Sno-King before trying out, and making the Totems
“I just love the team, it’s like a family here,” he says about the Totems. “Its definitely a little intense and physical, which I like. It’s a high pace league. There’s a lot of skilled guys and tough guys.”
Playing their home games at Olympic View Ice Arena in Mountlake Terrace, the Totems have been at it for quite a while.
They began in 2000 as a joint effort between the Seattle Junior Hockey Association and Sno-King Hockey as the Washington Totems and spent the first three seasons as a U17 travelling squad. In 2002 the team, now called Seattle Junior Totems, jumped up to the U20 Junior B Norpac league before settling in the Tier 2 Junior A Western States Hockey League in 2012.
Mike Murphy and Gord Whitaker have been involved in the administration of the club since its inception and while they hold the titles Head Coach and Team President respectively, they wear many hats.
Growing up in Seattle, Murphy got into hockey at a young age and attended his fair share of the old Seattle Totems games in the Seattle Center Coliseum. He played locally for Sno-King before moving into coaching as an adult.
Whitaker hails from Edmonton and after spending time in the Winnipeg Jets farm system he played professionally in Europe before landing in Seattle, which was his wife’s home town. He would meet Murphy during a Thunderbirds game at the Mercer Arena and the two got into the coaching game together.
The drive to coach youth hockey, and eventually junior hockey with the Totems, sprung from their love of the game.
“I think we both come from old school values,” Whitaker says. “It was really important that when we had the opportunity to be around here that we not only gave back the passion of the game but that we gave back in the way that those old crusty guys gave us once upon a time.”
The Totems are made up of 28 players from a variety of different backgrounds. Like Frey, 11 of the players hail from Seattle or the Puget Sound region. Not limited to the number of European imports they can have on the roster, the Totems have an international flavor as well with 10 players from countries such as Russia, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania and Italy.
Gabriel Sbop hails from Bolzano, Italy and is the Totems second leading scorer with 23 goals, 30 assists and 53 points through the first 28 games of the season. He chose to come to Seattle with the hopes of earning a professional contract to play hockey in Europe.
“Its definitely a little bit tougher,” he says of the adjustment to playing in North America and in the WSHL. “It’s pretty good obviously, that’s why I’m here, because I think it’s better. I’m still getting used to it a little bit, even though we’re half way in.”
Sbop stands out on the ice.
One of the taller players, listed at 6-foot-3, he has speed and skill and in a recent game against Bremerton’s West Sound Admirals, he recorded a goal and an assist in a 6-2 Seattle win.
The play in the WSHL is entertaining. The game is played with pace and skill and the league is known for an up and down style that features high-scoring games. Oh, and there is hitting as well.
The skill on display is not that far from that found in higher levels of junior hockey.
“(Size) is the initial detracting factor for our kids,” Whitaker says of the difference between WSHL players and those in Major-Junior leagues. “They didn’t pass the eye test physically. They were not the proverbial 6-2, 205 (pound) player. Now, we have some of them but not many of them. That’s part of the deal. Some of these kids are skilled enough but they may not pass the physical eye test where you ask if they can grind out a Western Hockey League, rugged schedule.”
While the Totems players are in it for love of the game, they do aspire to play at a higher level.
Many players end up playing in college, whether that be Division I, II, or III and even at the ACHA club level. The Totems have alumni who have also played in the WHL as well and professionally in the AHL and ECHL.
Every December, the league sends its clubs to Las Vegas for a showcase, where college recruiters congregate.
“The Vegas showcase is better than any national tournament,” Murphy says. “The (recruiters) camp out at that rink all day. The locker rooms after the games are a feeding frenzy. We’ve had a lot of kids that there’s no way they’d be in college without the Totems showing that they could do it. Even if its ACHA, there’s some good hockey there too, and it keeps you in school.”
Perhaps the most famous Totems alumni only played in one game.
Back when the club was trying to move up into Junior B, they played an exhibition game against a team from Hope, B.C. There still was some trepidation about whether the Totems were at the same level and they needed a good showing.
Murphy got in touch with a player he had coached for several years as a youth, Washington Capitals star T.J. Oshie. Then just 17-years-old, and playing high school hockey in Minnesota, Oshie flew back to Seattle prior to the start of his season to play in the exhibition game in Hope.
“He had seven of the nine goals and we beat them nine to something,” Murphy says with a laugh about their ringer.
Oshie still keeps in touch with Murphy and keeps a tab on the Totems.
— TJ Oshie (@TJOshie77) January 17, 2019
The Totems currently sit in second place in the WSHL’s Northwest Division with over 20 games left in the season. The four-team division also features the first place Bellingham Blazers, the West Sound Admirals and the Southern Oregon Spartans. Overall the league has teams down in Southern California and out into Colorado and Texas.
Most of the Totems schedule is made up of games within the division and occasional match ups with the California and Colorado clubs, although there is talk of more regional teams joining.
Like the teams in the WHL, the players are housed with local billet families who care for them while they are in Seattle to play for the Totems. The league and team also get involved in the local community, as teams in higher junior leagues do as well.
WSHL teams don’t have the budget to staff an extensive scouting department so recruiting players is an adventure.
“The recruiting is tough,” Murphy says. “It’s a little easier now with Facebook and Instagram, you can watch video. The Euros all have agents who send you stuff. There’s a fair amount of showcase camps in the spring and summer. We’ll go to one in Vancouver, to a big global one there…there’s a lot of stealing from other leagues.”
The Totems are a good, competitive team this season and without a doubt, have the sharpest sweaters in the WSHL.
“Unquestionably, it’s the favorite uniform in the league,” Whitaker says. “Just on an anecdotal level, everyone loves the old iconic look. The bird is iconic, it’s the favorite uniform and the favorite logo.”
Playing homage to the old WHL’s professional Totems, the green, white and black sweaters are sharp indeed. The Junior Totems logo is the same bird totem from the old days as well and it was important to Murphy and Whitaker to honor that tradition.
The name has become a hot topic lately as the NHL team in Seattle has yet to select a name and logo. There is a faction of fans who want the NHL team to adopt the same look.
“I was hoping they would take the Totems name, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Murphy adds.
Like most of the local amateur hockey associations and teams, Murphy says that the Junior Totems have heard from the NHL group about raising the profile of hockey in the Seattle area. Both he and Whitaker are positive that it will ultimately result in good things for all the region’s teams.
“I think it’s all going to rise,” Murphy says. “We’re a little worried for just the first couple years because the (NHL team’s three-sheet facility) at Northgate is five miles down on I-5. We’ll lose some kids, but it will come back around and rise back up.”
The Totems have ten more home games to go in the 2018-2019 season and with ticket prices under $10 its hard to find a better hockey bargain in the area. If you’re a fan of the Totems logo the team sells hats, toques, t-shirts, pucks and other memorabilia at its games as well and there is a full concession stand open for business — with prices more affordable than you’ll find in other hockey arenas.
While the lights at the Olympic View Arena may not shine as bright as those in other, bigger arenas, the players on the ice are playing just as hard. The Totems have a great brand while playing entertaining hockey that is worth a trip to Mountlake Terrace.
For more information about the Seattle Junior Totems you can visit their web site here.
Western States Hockey League information can be found on its web site here.