It was a season like no other, all due to COVID-19 and the restrictions and modifications that resulted from it. Among the nine Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League teams that saw action this 2020-2021 season, the Soo Thunderbirds were more fortunate than most as they got to play in 21 games. And along the way, the Thunderbirds maintained a tidy tradition of not having had a losing record since coming into existence as a member of the modern day NOJHL in 1999.
Only once since franchise originator Sam Biasucci brought the Thunderbirds into the NOJHL back in 1999 have the Thunderbirds not posted a regular season record above the .500 mark. But the 2006-2007 campaign was not a losing season for the Thunderbirds, who finished right at the .500 mark with a record of 22-22-4 in what was a 48-game schedule.
Meanwhile, the 2020-2021 edition of the Thunderbirds posted a record of 13-6-2 through the abbreviated NOJHL season which saw the Soo play the Blind River Beavers in 17 of its 21 games and the Espanola Express in the other four.
Coached by Denny Lambert with assistance from Jeremy Stevenson, Gary Roach, Mickey Sartoretto and Aidan Wright and managed by Trev Zachary, the Thunderbirds also honoured another franchise tradition under current owner Darren Smyl by going with a lineup laden with local talent.
Indeed, 14 of the 23 players who finished the season on the Thunderbirds roster are either from Sault Ste. Marie or played their minor hockey in the Soo.
Including much of the local talent led by scoring leader Cooper Smyl, the Thunderbirds can return 16 of the 23 players from the 2020-2021 roster in 2021-2022.
Besides Smyl, other locals who saw regular duty for the Thunderbirds this season included graduating forwards Caleb Wood, Avery Rebek, Parker Morgan and Noah Boman and eligible returnees Kurtis Rogers, Brock Santa Maria, Michael Chaffay, Ty Zachary, Tyson Doucette, Ethan Novello, Jacob Doucette, Kaden Dundas and Connor Toms.
Of note, Smyl, as a 2002 birth year forward, is already drawing interest from Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association schools despite having two full seasons of junior eligibility remaining. The schools in question are of Ivy League status where excellent academic grades are mandatory.
As for Toms, a 2004 birth year defenseman, he has a near future with the Soo Greyhounds as a 2020, third round, Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft pick.
The other 2004 birth year player to play for the Thunderbirds this season was forward Tyson Doucette.
On the small side at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, Doucette saw considerable action as a two-way, rookie forward and managed five goals, six assists, 11 points in 20 games. This is a quality local kid who the Thunderbirds can certainly build around in seasons ahead.
To be sure, the winning and local player traditions are what have always made the Thunderbirds a reputable organization from operators such as the aforementioned Sam Biasucci and Darren Smyl to those in between that included erstwhile team presidents Pat Egan and Al Giommi.
Former general managers and coaches such as Steve Graves, Al Jones, Kevin Cain, Bart Jarrett, Jim Capy, Toots Kovacs, Pat Carricato, Sean Gagnon, Preston Mizzi, Jordan Smith and John Parco were also big on developing local talent.
Of note, Capy was also instrumental and influential in helping no less than 16 of his players — many of them local — get Division 1 scholarships during his four seasons as coach of the Thunderbirds.
Looking ahead, it remains to be seen if anyone local and/or connected to the Thunderbirds will put together a summer tournament team ahead of the 2021-2022 NOJHL season.
Two NOJHL coaches — Brent Hughes of the Espanola Express and Kyle Smart of the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — have already confirmed their intentions to put together tournament teams for this summer.