When the Soo Thunderbirds were admitted into the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League back in 1999, the locally operated franchise had a firm mandate.
Led by Sam Biasucci and several other Sault Ste. Marie business people, the Thunderbird owners vowed to be a haven for local products who were ready to move up from the town’s minor hockey and high school hockey ranks.
To be sure, Biasucci et al stayed true to form for the first couple of years of the Thunderbirds existence in the NOJHL. And later, when Pat Egan and Al Jones took over as operators and moved on from Jim Capy to Toots Kovacs as their head coach, the Thunderbirds were again made up of 95 to 100 per cent local players.
Following Egan and Jones, the next operator was local businessman Albert Giommi. Giommi and general manager Kevin Cain continued the trend of local talent on the Thunderbirds, though not at the 95 to 100 per cent ratio from the Egan, Jones, Kovacs days.
Now, with Darren Smyl at the helm as team president and Trev Zachary as the general manager, the Thunderbirds are returning to more of a local look. So far, with the 2020-2021 edition of the Thunderbird roster still not finalized, there are 11 locals who have been signed.
And hopefully there will be more than the current 11, which includes seven newcomers who were not with the Thunderbirds in 2019-2020 — defensemen Connor Toms and Kaden Dundas and forwards Parker Morgan, Caleb Wood, Michael Chaffay, Ty Zachary and Tyson Doucette.
The other four locals are holdover forwards Avery Rebek, Kurtis Rogers, Brock Santa Maria and Cooper Smyl.
As noted, here is hoping that the Thunderbirds sign at least a few more locals ahead of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.
The way I — and many others who are close to the local hockey scene — see it, there should always be a spot on the Thunderbirds for a local kid who has the capabilities and/or potential to play at the NOJHL level. And if the spot is at the expense of an out of town player who may be a bit better, then so be it.
Sault Ste. Marie is a good sized hockey town with hundreds upon hundreds of players moving up from one level to another over the course of a given season.
And if previous operators, coaches and managers such as Biasucci, Egan, Jones, Kovacs and Cain could find room for so many local players — and either make it to the NOJHL finals or win the league championship with them as their base — we can only hope that the time honoured T-Bird tradition will continue.
To be clear, with Smyl as the current operator and Zachary as the GM, the Thunderbirds are certainly showing signs of being partisan to local talent that is capable of playing at the NOJHL level.
But I really hope — and do believe — that there are even more locals who could and should land a spot in the Bird nest before the first puck drops on the upcoming NOJHL season.