It was the first game of the season for Gig Harbor resident Mekai Sanders, playing hockey at the Bremerton Ice Center about five years ago.
Sanders, 10 years old at the time, scored 10 of his team’s 15 goals. That’s about the time his parents realized Sanders might have a future in the game.
His play that season led to invite to play on Kirkland-based Sno-King, then for another team in Lynnwood. Most recently? He lived in Detroit with a host family the entire past school year, playing for Detroit Compuware, a high-level youth hockey team in Michigan.
Sanders, 15, has excelled at every stop, and recently became the first local player drafted by the Seattle Thunderbirds, a major junior ice hockey team in the Western Hockey League, which plays its games in the ShoWare Center in Kent.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Today, I am honored to have become a part of the Seattle Thunderbirds Association. I would like to thank my family, friends and coaches for helping me a long the way. <a href="https://t.co/DFkNqKCxfv">pic.twitter.com/DFkNqKCxfv</a></p>— mekai sanders (@SandersMekai) <a href="https://twitter.com/SandersMekai/status/1009194957356199936?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 19, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Sanders, along with his step-dad Scott Harden, and mom, Heather Sanders, were sitting by the computer in early May, refreshing the draft page of the 2018 Bantam Draft in Red Deer, Alberta.
They went crazy when Sanders was drafted in the ninth round, with the 186th overall pick.
“I’m really honored and super excited,” Sanders said. “I remember going to (Thunderbirds) games when I was a kid, watching them, telling my parents and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. I’ve been working toward that my whole life. Being able to play for them feels great.”
Sanders was born in Washington and spent the infant stage of his life on Bainbridge Island. Harden, who runs an IT consulting company, was spending the bulk of his time in Vancouver, Canada, working on various projects. The time commitment got to the point where it made sense to move the family to Vancouver.
Originally, it was Harden who picked up hockey, as something to do while he was on business in Vancouver.
“I was traveling up there so much, I was looking for something to do for exercise,” Harden said. “I knew how to skate already, so I picked up hockey.”
Sanders’ parents had an inkling that their son might take to the ice.
“He was on rollerblades ever since he was 11 months old,” Harden said. “He’s pretty athletic.”
By the time he was 5, Sanders learned how to skate on ice and play hockey, alongside Harden. Just like rollerblading, Sanders took to it immediately.
“In Canada, that’s all kids really wanted to do up there,” Sanders said.
So when the family moved back to Washington — this time, to Gig Harbor — Sanders needed to find a place to play.
LIFE ON THE ICE
Bremerton, Kirkland, Lynnwood — everywhere he went next, the goal-scoring right-wing Sanders excelled. While other kids in the area were playing soccer, basketball and baseball, Sanders couldn’t escape the feeling he got playing hockey.
“I like how it’s fast, physical,” he said. “I played some other sports growing up. Hockey was by far my favorite.”
Sanders describes himself as a “gritty” player on the ice.
“I bring a lot of good energy, play fast and physical,” Sanders said. “I like to shoot the puck a lot. I’ll get after it in the corners, work hard to get the puck back, try to set my teammates up for goals.”
As Sanders moved up the chain in Washington, he reached a point where he didn’t feel he was being challenged enough.
So he sat his parents down and calmly told them he wanted to play hockey in Detroit. In the 2017-18 school year, moved to Michigan to play for Detroit Compuware 14U team, where he scored six goals and tallied 12 assists in 20 games.
“For me, it’s been really difficult,” Heather Sanders said. “Leaving at 14 years old is never something we planned on.”
But Sanders’ mom could see his passion, so she didn’t stand in his way.
“He was ready,” she said. “It stems back to that passion he has — his focus for the game. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do. He’ll do whatever it takes.”
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Newly signed Mekai Sanders stopped by <a href="https://twitter.com/ShoWareCenter?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ShoWareCenter</a> to visit with coaching staff and get in a workout. <a href="https://t.co/duqutnPn2M">pic.twitter.com/duqutnPn2M</a></p>— Seattle Thunderbirds (@SeattleTbirds) <a href="https://twitter.com/SeattleTbirds/status/1012034422755844096?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 27, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Even against higher-level competition in Detroit, Sanders thrived.
“The level of play was a lot higher,” Sanders said. “It really challenged me as a player, more than anywhere I’ve played.”
Sanders will spend one more year in Detroit. Once he turns 16, he’ll be eligible to come back home and play for the Thunderbirds in Kent. It’ll be a dream come true for Sanders ... and his mom is happy about it, too.
“When he got drafted, it was like, ‘Oh, good, he’s coming home,’ ” Heather Sanders said. “That was my first reaction.”
The Western Hockey League is part of the Canadian Hockey League, so most of the draft picks are Canadian-born players. Sanders is the first local draft pick for the Thunderbirds.
“Mekai is a very exciting player and we know we are very lucky to have been able to add him late in the draft like we did,” Seattle Thunderbirds Vice President of Hockey Operations Russ Farwell said in a release.
“This is the first local player with the potential to develop into one of our top players we have had since moving to Kent. All of our hockey staff were impressed with him and this is a big day for us as we build our team for the future.”
By signing a WHL Standard Player Agreement, Sanders is guaranteed a WHL Scholarship for every year he plays in the WHL. A player can attend any career enhancing institution of his choice, including universities, colleges, technical institutes, trade schools, or any other institution which will help the player achieve his academic and career goals.
For each season played in the WHL, a player receives a one-year post-secondary scholarship, which includes tuition, compulsory fees and required textbooks.
Sanders hasn’t been around Gig Harbor too often these days, but he said he still considers himself a Gig Harbor resident, first and foremost.
“All my friends and family here have been awesome,” Sanders said. “They’re excited for me.”
Living in Detroit, there are times when Sanders feels somewhat detached from the Gig Harbor community.
“But I FaceTime friends when I get the chance, and keep in touch on social media,” Sanders said.
Sanders is dreaming big.
“I’m definitely shooting for the (National Hockey League) someday,” he said. “It’s always been my dream to play there. I’ll just keeping working hard, putting in the hours. I know my coaches and teammates will help me out along the way.”