To be sure, major midget hockey has made a positive return to Sault Ste. Marie following a one-year absence that many feel should never have happened in the first place.
At any rate, gone are the Soo North Stars and their multiple Great North Midget Hockey League championships and in their place are the Soo Thunderbirds.
There’s new management — thankfully — a new coaching staff and a new commitment to major midget hockey in the Soo.
Through 31 games this GNMHL season, the Thunderbirds are in first place with 45 points from a record of 22-8-1. And while the Thunderbirds are on top, the New Liskeard Cubs, Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves and Nickel City Sons are all within range in the seven-team league.
As the GNMHL has re-defined itself with fewer teams that have made for a better-balanced league, gone are the days of the too-frequent 17-1, 15-2 and 12-3 scores.
The erstwhile North Stars, as good as they were, had a reputation for being a team that ran up the score on the weak teams while padding the individual stats of their top players. It’s been said and repeated that player development was secondary to winning championships on the agenda of those who called the shots for the North Stars on the ice and in the board room.
Whatever the case, what’s done is done.
The North Stars are in the past; the Thunderbirds are the present and hopefully the future.
With more games against better competition at out-of-town and out-of-country tournaments, the Thunderbird midgets have aspired to place more emphasis on development.
So says Kevin Cain, who oversees both the Thunderbird midgets and Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League as general manager.
Speaking of the Thunderbird midgets, Cain said that he is happy with the development of the players that is being shown under the watch of veteran coach Jim Capy.
“We all like to win,” Cain said evenly. “Managers like to win, coaches like to win, players like to win. What I am also seeing with our midgets is how much the players are improving and developing since the start of the season.”
Enter Capy as the takeover coach of the re-started major midget program.
Capy has a reputation in Sault Ste. Marie and area hockey circles that perhaps can be described as checkered.
He can be abrasive and aloof, he can be demanding and irritating, he can be over-bearing and obnoxious.
But he is also a student of the game, an old-style coach who has embraced new ways.
“It’s never going to be smooth sailing with Jim,” said Cain, who has worked alongside Capy for a number of years at the minor hockey and Junior A levels. “At the end of the day, though, Jim cares. He cares about his players and he pushes them hard to develop.”
As the Thunderbirds maintain first place in the GNMHL, they have a mix of 1997 and 1998 birth-year players who are looking to advance beyond the major midget level.
Their top players are goalie Joey Roberts, defencemen Matt Murray and Jared Fanti and forwards Brendan Gillis, Brad Thrower, Zach Senecal, Ryan Mulligan and Matt Mackay.
Then there is a younger player in 1999 birth-year forward Isaac Lennox, who was recently promoted from the AA midget ranks. Lennox fits the Thunderbird mission statement of player advancement and development.
There is not a pre-junior hockey program out there that does not have its issues.
As a matter-of-fact, there is probably not a hockey program or league at any level that is without fault and could be better at what it proposes to do.
But major midget hockey is back in Sault Ste. Marie — and from most accounts, it is following the design of player development and exposure.
PHOTO: Soo Thunderbirds defenceman Nolan Makkonen pursues Nickel City Sons forward Joel Grandbois in recent Great North Midget Hockey League action. (Photo by Ali Pearson.)