Soo Minor Thunderbirds of the Great North Midget Hockey League can be termed a reflection of their head coach. As Jamie Henderson is a focused, disciplined, hard-driven, hard-working individual, so too are the cast of players who make up the 2018-2019 edition of the Minor Thunderbirds.
Overall, the Minor Thunderbirds are not a team of exorbitant skill.
Their goalies have allowed an average of 5.50 goals against per game through 14 outings in the Great North loop.
And while the Minor Thunderbirds have given up 77 goals in 14 league matches, they have scored only 41, which is an average of less than three per game.
An indication of how offensively challenged the Minor Thunderbirds are is that of their top four scorers, two are defensemen, namely Jack Matier and Tyler Dunbar.
Still, there are Ontario Hockey League scouts who, while they have both Matier and Dunbar highly ranked ahead of the 2019 priority selections draft, have also relayed to Hockey News North that the Minor Thunderbirds are a disciplined, motivated, organized, well-coached team.
Indeed, a look at the Minor Thunderbirds penalty minute total through 14 league games reflects the team discipline that Henderson as the head coach has instilled.
Through the 14 league games to date, the Minor Thunderbirds have been assessed a mere 141 minutes in penalties. Averaging just over 10 minutes per game in the sin bin, the Minor Thunderbirds are the least penalized team by far among the nine hockey clubs that make up the Great North. (The Minor Thunderbirds team that Henderson coached during the 2017-2018 season was also the least penalized in the Great North.)
The low penalty total is a statistic that Henderson is rather proud of.
“The coaching staff preaches discipline and give our kids credit for listening to our direction and being a very disciplined team,” Henderson noted. “We simply cannot afford to be playing shorthanded. Our discipline is one of our key strengths.”
Competing as one of three minor midget teams along with six major midget squads in the Great North allows the Minor Thunderbirds the opportunity to not only play against players their own age but others who are one and two years older on average.
And it is high-end tournament play that has so many OHL scouts taking note of Minor Thunderbirds such as the aforementioned Matier and Dunbar, not to mention a third defenseman in Thomas Irwin and a big forward in Stephen Pszeniczny.
Tournament play has the Minor Thunderbirds on the road to London, Detroit, Brantford and Waterloo and then, in January, in Peterborough.
As previously noted, it is the defensive duo of Matier and Dunbar that has so many OHL scouts intrigued.
Matier is being projected as a first or second round pick at the 2019 OHL priority selections draft and the American-born Dunbar could well be a second, third or fourth round choice. Dunbar’s status could be affected by the fact that as an American (he hails from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan) he could be more inclined to take the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association route.
Of note, the right-handed shooting Matier is the son of 1993 Soo Greyhounds Memorial Cup championship defenseman Mark Matier. The elder Matier went on to play professional hockey, including a number of years in the United Kingdom.
As for the left-handed shooting Dunbar, his Canadian-born dad, Alan Dunbar, played at the Division 1, NCAA hockey level with the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames. And his mom, Kris Bullock-Dunbar, is a former Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference basketball standout as both a player and a coach with the Lake Superior State University Lakers.
Of further note, Dunbar — who has dual citizenship — does not turn 15 years old until December 18, thus he is one of the youngest players eligible for the 2019 OHL draft.
Though Matier, Dunbar, Irwin and Pszeniczny are four who have caught the most attention of the OHL scouts and general managers, there are other members of the Minor Thunderbirds who have shown a pretty good upside, including forwards Jake Kovacs, Gavin Ritacco, Ethan Novello, Theo Smith and Dylan Szabo.
Meanwhile, besides competing hard on the ice, the Minor Thunderbirds have incorporated the physical, mental discipline of Yoga into their training regime.
The minor midget team, made up of players born in 2003, have already had several sessions with certified instructor Cara Russon of Yoga Is Movement Medicine.
By all accounts, the initial introductions of the Yoga practice have gone really well.
“It is great,” said Henderson. “The kids are really liking it and getting a lot out of it. It is something we will continue to do. Cara really knows her stuff.”
Russon operates her Yoga Is Movement Medicine practice for groups and individuals in the Healing Arts Center on Bruce St. in Sault Ste. Marie. And she said she has enjoyed the Yoga sessions with the players on the Minor Thunderbirds.
“At first they were a little awkward and nervous but now they are getting more relaxed and into it,” she said. “The feedback I have been getting from the players and their parents has been really good. They are a really good group of young hockey players to work with.”
Meanwhile, through 14 games in the Great North, the Minor Thunderbirds have a record of 4-7-3, which includes a recent 2-0 win over the Timmins Majors.
“We would like to have a few more wins,” said Henderson. “And I think we could have come away with a few more wins at the tournaments we have been to. But I will take player development and trying to get the kids ready for the next level of hockey over an obsession with a win-loss record.
“I am as competitive as the next guy and you know how much I love to win,” Henderson continued. “But in order for our kids to develop properly they need the opportunity to play against the best minor midget teams throughout Ontario and Michigan and they have been getting that in the tournaments that we have been to and the ones that we will be going to.
“We are a work in progress,” Henderson added. “And I cannot say enough about the commitment and the work ethic of our players as a team.”
The three minor midget teams of the Great North — the Soo, Sudbury Minor Wolves and North Bay Minor Trappers — play 24 regular season games within the league, six against each other. They also play two games each against the six major midget teams.
Conversely, the six major midget teams — Soo Major Thunderbirds, North Bay Major Trappers, Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves, Timmins Majors, Kapuskasing Flyers and New Liskeard Cubs — play one another six times each and have two games against each of the three minor midget clubs for a regular season total of 36 contests.