The surging Soo Minor Thunderbirds of the Great North Midget Hockey League will take a record of 7-7-4 into the new year when play resumes in the 2019 portion of the schedule.
A disciplined, hard-working, well-coached team, the Minor Thunderbirds have a 4-0-2 record in their last six Great North outings ahead of the Christmas holiday break.
Included in the recent wins for the Minor Thunderbirds are a pair over the North Bay Minor Trappers and solo victories over both the Timmins Majors and the Soo Major Thunderbirds. The Minor Thunderbirds also picked up points from shootout losses to Timmins and the Sudbury Minor Wolves during that span.
Just as impressively, the Minor Thunderbirds have drastically improved their goals against average during the six games, as opponents managed to score just seven times during that span.
To date, through 18 regular season games in the Great North, the Minor Thunderbirds have allowed 83 goals and scored 55 times.
To be sure, hard-driven head coach Jamie Henderson has noted the vast improvement in his Minor Thunderbirds.
“The month of December has been a tremendous step forward for our program,” Henderson told Hockey News North. “To take a top team like Sudbury to a shootout (which ended in a tough 2-1 loss for the Soo) is a huge confidence builder for our group. All together, we have had some huge performances of late.”
While the Minor Thunderbirds have cut down on goals allowed in such a big way, they remain somewhat of an offensively-challenged unit, except for a recent 7-0 win over North Bay.
An indication of how offensively challenged the Minor Thunderbirds are is that of their top five 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 18 league games reflects the team discipline that Henderson as the head coach has instilled.
Through the 18 league games to date, the Minor Thunderbirds have been assessed a mere 181 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,” said the 41-year old Henderson, who is considered by many to be a rising coaching prospect in Ontario.
Meanwhile, on the individual statistics chart, Jake Kovacs leads the Minor Thunderbirds in scoring with 9 goals, 11 assists, 20 points. Next up is Steve Pszeniczny with 9-8-17 totals followed by Matier at 6-9-15, Gavin Ritacco at 5-9-14 and Dunbar with 2-10-12 numbers.
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 — will just turn 15 years old this week, thus he is one of the youngest players eligible for the 2019 OHL draft.
Though Matier, Dunbar and Pszeniczny are three Minor Thunderbirds who have caught the most attention of the OHL scouts and general managers, there are other members of the team who have shown a pretty good upside, including defenseman Thomas Irwin, forwards Kovacs, Ritacco, Ethan Novello, Theo Smith and Dylan Szabo.
At any rate, going into the Christmas break with the 4-0-2 record in their last six games and an overall Great North mark of 7-7-4, has Henderson quite proud of the Minor Thunderbirds.
“I cannot say enough about the commitment and the work ethic of our players as a team,” Henderson relayed. “We have shown that we can compete with the top teams.”
Of note, the three minor midget teams of the Great North — the Soo, Sudbury and North Bay — 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.