Soo Thunderbirds solid performance at this month’s Royal Bank Cup, national tournament, paid positive dividends for the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
The Thunderbirds posted a 2-2 record during the five-team round-robin to advance to the semi-finals before losing 3-0 to the eventual Royal Bank Cup champion Penticton Vees.
It should be noted that the Thunderbirds actually defeated powerful Penticton during the round-robin portion of the tournament. The significance of the Thunderbird win was that not only did Penticton’s roster include no less than four National Hockey League draft picks but 16 players who have Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships for next season
NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca said the Thunderbirds represented the NOJHL with “honour, integrity and the utmost in class. It’s a credit to (interim coach) Toots Kovacs and everyone from the Thunderbirds who made the trip out west (to Humboldt, Sask.) for the Royal Bank Cup.”
Mazzuca added that several Major Junior, Canadian University, American University and — get this — NHL scouts and representatives were in Humboldt for the Royal Bank Cup and many were “astounded” at the skill level of the Thunderbirds.
“I told them that we (the NOJHL) are junior hockey’s best-kept secret,” Mazzuca relayed. “I think we are going to see a lot more scouts at our games next season. The way the Thunderbirds played and performed was a big boost for the entire NOJHL and a real credit to our league.”
Prior to their appearance at the Royal Bank Cup national tournament, a season fraught with drama, doubt, deception and due process delivered the Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. A hockey championship to Sault Ste. Marie for the first time ever.
The Thunderbirds on-ice success of the 2011-12 season has made for a good story. In fact, it may be the top local sports story of the past year.
From the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign to the end of it, the Thunderbirds were the NOJHL’s best team.
And while there were unfortunate off-ice incidents that led to the NOJHL having to hire an independent, third-party investigator to look into alleged nonsense involving the Thunderbirds, the team did rebound to serve its city and league exceptionally well at the RBC.
So, what lies ahead for the Thunderbirds?
For starters, the coaching staff will be decidely different come the 2012-13 season.
Majority owner Albert Giommi will remain as a funder but will not be as active as he was in the president’s chair. More upper-level responsibility will be given to valued volunteers such as Carlo DiCandia and Enzo Coccimiglio.
Kovacs, the interim coach, once again proved to be priceless as a mentor and mediator to the franchise and can choose any future role that he may (or may not) want within the organization.
On the ice, several members of the 2011-12 title team have exhausted their junior eligibility, including goalie John Kleinhans, defencemen James Delayer and Kris Barclay and forwards Micky Sartoretto, Matt Amadio, Brett Campbell, Kevin Michelcavage and Cody Zorzi.
Several more could return in 2012-13, though some — defencemen Cory Jackson, Dylan Connolly, Brad Pascall, Josh Hicks and Jeremy Solomon and forwards Nick Romano and Jake Wright for instance — could opt for opportunities in southern Ontario or south of the border.
Regardless of all that happened during the 2011-12 season — on and off the ice — the Thunderbirds certainly seem to have done the NOJHL proud on the national stage.