Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League are — as they should be — the big game in town. After all, the OHL is probably the best junior hockey development league in the world and the Greyhounds have a long history of producing players for the National Hockey League.
But the Soo is also home to the Thunderbirds of the lower level Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. And the Thunderbirds are all about giving local lads a place to play and develop while staying at home.
In fact, plum local product defenseman Connor Toms is slated to move up from the Thunderbirds and the NOJHL to the Greyhounds and the OHL come the 2021-2022 season.
Meantime, the Thunderbirds figure to have at least 14 Soo boys in the lineup when the 2021-2022 NOJHL season begins.
Veteran local players for the Thunderbirds are as follows, listed in alphabetical order.
• Michael Chaffay. A durable forward with good hands and sharp eyes for the net, the solidly built skater finished tied for fifth on the Thunderbirds scoring chart in 2020-2021 with six goals, 10 assists, 16 points in 21 games. With the Soo’s top two scorers from last season — Cooper Smyl and Caleb Wood — ticketed to play elsewhere in 2021-2022, Chaffay looms as a serious threat to fill the net as a sophomore.
• Cole Delarosbil. A big forward, Delarosbil has played the past two NOJHL seasons in Espanola, totaling 11 goals, five assists, 16 points in 38 games for the Express. He was recently acquired in a trade.
• Tyson Doucette. Somewhat small in size — he is still growing — but smart and with untapped skill, the hard working forward came through with five goals, six assists, 11 points in 20 games for the Soo as one of the youngest players in the entire NOJHL in 2020-2021. With a 2004 birth date, Doucette has considerable junior eligibility remaining in order to further refine what is already a pretty good all around game.
• Kaden Dundas. Dressing for 16 of the Thunderbirds 21 games as a rookie defenseman in 2020-2021, Dundas had five points, all of them assists. He made the jump to the NOJHL last season from the Korah Colts high school hockey program.
• Ethan Novello. Seeing limited ice time as a rookie forward in 2020-2021, Novello collected one goal, two assists, three points in 17 games. He will get an opportunity from new coach Cole Jarrett to move up on the depth chart in 2021-2022.
• Russell Oldham. Not known as a major scoring threat from his forward position, Oldham had nine points, including eight assists, in 20 games for the Soo in 2020-2021.
• Brock Santa Maria. An under-rated forward, Santa Maria finished tied for fifth with the aforementioned Michael Chaffay on the Soo scoring parade in 2020-2021 with six goals, 10 assists, 16 points in 19 outings. Santa Maria definitely showed some images of dominance for the Thunderbirds last season and going into his third term with the team in 2021-2022 certainly has the ability to be a major difference maker.
• Ty Zachary. The hustling forward netted four goals, six assists, 10 points in 21 games for the Thunderbirds in 2020-2021. Hard work, commitment and a never quit attitude are among the many positive traits that Zachary has.
• Noah Zeppa. A medium size goalie, Zeppa, who was the most valuable player in the entire Great North Under 18 Hockey League in 2018-2019 while tending twine for the Soo, played briefly for the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League in 2020-2021. Before going to Renfrew during the abbreviated 2020-2021 season, Zeppa played part of the 2019-2020 campaign in the NOJHL with the Hearst Lumberjacks only to suffer a season-ending concussion.
Oldest to youngest, Delarosbil and Oldham both have 2001 birth dates, Chaffay, Santa Maria, Zachary and Zeppa were all born in 2002, Novello and Dundas were born in 2003 and Doucette has a 2004 birth day.
• Meanwhile, Thunderbirds general manager Jamie Henderson has confirmed the commitments of five local rookies ahead of the 2021-2022 season.
Among the local flock are top performers from the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League.
They are 2004 birth year goalie Noah Metivier, 2004 birth year defensemen Michael Beltrano and Creo Solomon, 2003 birth year defender Kolby Fellinger and 2004 birth year forward Samuel Lake.
To be sure, the Thunderbirds are a team that thinks local. And it would be cool if fans and supporters of the Soo, as a hockey town, would perhaps support the local Birds even more than they have in the past.