A serious knee injury, a western conference title, and taking the next step along a pathway to the NHL – local hockey product and Cochrane native Tyrel Bauer has experienced a lot in the 2021-22 season.
After tearing his MCL in December 2021, the 20-year-old defenseman and captain for the Seattle Thunderbirds recovered two months earlier than originally forecasted, making his return from the potentially season-ending setback just in time for the major junior team's run in the Western Hockey League (WHL) playoffs.
“Essentially, it was a five to six month timeline, which put me out for the rest of the regular season up until the third [round] or even the finals,” Bauer said of the injury, which he sustained during a regular-season game against the Kamloops Blazers on Dec. 10.
A little less than four months after the MCL tear, Bauer returned to the ice for the first time in the Thunderbird's March 25 game against the Vancouver Giants.
“It was definitely difficult to go through and there were a lot of long days,” he said of the rehabilitation period. “But you learn a lot about yourself. You make [rehab] your new sport and put your best foot forward every day. That’s what I did. I was fortunate to have a great team around me and got to come back a little earlier than expected.”
With their captain back in the line-up in time for the WHL playoffs, Seattle made a run all the way to the finals. After advancing in series against Kelowna and Portland, they took home the WHL's western division by beating Kamloops.
The T-Birds ultimately came up short against the Edmonton Oil Kings in the championship-deciding series. Seattle's hopes for a title were dashed on June 13, when the Oil Kings won 2-0 in game six of the best-of-seven series.
“It was a rollercoaster, for sure,” said Bauer of the Thunderbird's playoff run. “We had a lot of adversity to face as a team – numerous injuries, illness, and lots of other things that happened throughout the year.
“But the group kept going. I think the playoffs were the first time we were fully healthy and together as a team. We were able to fire on all cylinders at that point. It’s an awesome group of guys. They’re a lot of fun and the hardest working group I’ve been a part of. It showed in the playoffs. We went down a few times in some of the series against pretty good teams and were able to come back.”
This season marked Bauer's fourth year with the Thunderbirds. The Cochrane native joined the Washington-based organization in 2018 after playing for AAA level teams in Airdrie throughout his minor career, including the Airdrie Xtreme U15 team and the Airdrie Bisons U18 squad.
Chosen as the Thunderbird's captain for the last two seasons, Bauer said it was an honour to hold a leadership position with the WHL franchise he's spent his whole junior career with.
“I don’t have enough things to say about the Seattle organization,” he said. “They drafted me when I was young and welcomed me right away. They gave me every opportunity to be successful.
“The organization has been phenomenal. There have been a lot of great players to come through, and the culture there is undeniably one of the best – if not the best – in junior hockey. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to play there my four years and for them to show that confidence in me.”
Now that the Thunderbird's season is officially over, Bauer is back in his hometown of Cochrane for a period of rest and recuperation.
He won't be in Alberta for long, however, as he recently inked a three-year entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg had previously selected Bauer in the sixth round of the NHL Super Draft in 2020.
Though he’s eligible to play one more year of junior (U21) hockey, Bauer said his sights are set on playing professionally next season. The 20-year-old blue-liner said he's looking forward to heading to Winnipeg later this summer for the NHL team's development camp.
He said signing for the Jets provided a sense of validation for all the work he's put into hockey over the years.
“Everyone who plays this sport, especially from a young age, it’s their dream to make the NHL,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to play junior hockey and fortunate enough to get drafted. This is just another stepping stone to work up the ranks of hockey, until you make the top.
“It’s getting real now. This is what I’m trying to do for a living, so it’s exciting.”