Top-ranked T-Birds have sights set

January 19, 2016

Time will tell if newcomer Connor Ryckman can match the elevated Mario Culina between the pipes but for now the consensus is that the Soo Thunderbirds remain the team to beat in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The Thunderbirds — ranked no. 1 in the latest Canadian Jr. Hockey League poll — are flying high atop the overall standings of the 12-team NOJHL with a record of 34-3-1. And if anyone thinks the defending NOJHL and Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada champions can be knocked from their lofty perch they aren’t saying.

Still, the NOJHL is far from a one-horse league as the Cochrane Crunch, Powassan Voodoos, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, Timmins Rock, Rayside-Balfour Canadians and Elliot Lake Wildcats all wear the contender label.

In other words, seven of the NOJHL’s 12 teams can be classified as legitimate championship contenders for this 2015-2016 campaign.

But as Soo Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo has noted, the Thunderbirds “are the team to beat, if you ask me.

“There are so many good teams in the league and that is what is great about the NOJHL but with all due respect to the others, the Thunderbirds are a very, very good team,” opined Bragagnolo, the hockey boss of the Michigan-based Eagles, a first-year entry that is in fourth place in the West Division and eighth overall.

Bragagnolo added that “it says a lot about the NOJHL that we have the no. 1 ranked team in Canada from our league.”

The Eagles are 0-7 in games against the Thunderbirds thus far this season with five matches still to be played between the cross-border foes. The two teams face off again on Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo.

What is impressive about the Thunderbirds is their overall depth and age balance.

Not only are the Thunderbirds deep at the forward and defense positions but many of their younger players perform key roles.

Thunderbird youngsters include 1999 birth-year skater Mark Tassone and fellow forwards who were born in either 1998 or 1997 including Darian Pilon, Drake Pilon, Ryan Mulligan, Zach Senecal and Matt Caruso.

Of note, high-end defenseman Caleb Boman, who has a future commitment to play at the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association level with the Niagara University Purple Eagles, also has a 1997 birth date.

Thunderbirds general manager Jamie Henderson, who serves as a right-hand man of sorts to president and director of hockey operations Kevin Cain, likes what the younger players have brought to the team.

“I think it’s a credit to our coaching staff for putting our younger guys in good situations,” said Henderson, while guesting on last week’s edition of the Hockey North Show that airs on Sault Ste. Marie radio station ESPN 1400.

“Having said that,” Henderson added, “give credit to our younger kids who have accepted the challenge and played significant roles for us all season.”

Henderson has worked hard at bringing in players via the trade route since the start of the season as he and Cain have tried to ensure that the Thunderbirds are without major weakness as they seek to repeat their championship season of 2014-2015.

Newcomers who have joined the Thunderbirds since the start of the season include defensemen Aiden Salerno and Khadyn Butterfly, forward Adam McPhail and the the aforementioned goalie Ryckman.

Ryckman’s acquisition earlier this month became a necessity when the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League brought up the previously-mentioned Culina to be their second goalie.

Henderson, for one, took Culina’s promotion to the OHL and Windsor in stride.

“It’s great for Mario, it’s what he wanted, to be in the OHL and we are happy for him,” said Henderson. “Still, it put us in a tough spot, needing a veteran goalie but we were able to go out and get Connor Ryckman from the Ontario Jr. Hockey League.”

While seeking to retain their NOJHL and Dudley-Hewitt Cup championship status, Henderson noted that while the Thunderbird youngsters have played a big role, the team’s veterans “are an outstanding group that leads by example.

“We have so many guys who have been around and who were part of our championship team from last year who we will need to lead the way again for us if we are going to repeat,” said Henderson.

“Our veteran leadership is outstanding,” Henderson continued. “We have guys who have been there before who want to get back and win the league and the Dudley and take another shot at the RBC Cup.”

The RBC Cup represents the Canadian Jr. Hockey League’s national championship.

PHOTO: The youngest player on the Soo Thunderbirds is 1999 birth-year forward Mark Tassone. Tassone has an impressive 10 goals, 18 assists, 28 points in 36 games for the T-Birds thus far this season. (Photo by Ali Pearson.)

What you think about “Top-ranked T-Birds have sights set”

  1. Terrific article. The T-Birds are indisputably the team to beat, and there are indeed many worthy challengers in the NOJHL. The Soo do everything right. They develop local talent. They bring in the right pieces from outside, and create the positive and team-focused atmosphere that breeds success. They encourage NCAA and OHL opportunities for their players, even when it means they don’t benefit from their best years. The sum is greater than the parts on this team. While the Soo know they are heavily favoured to repeat, they still won’t take anyone lightly. Last year they knew the Wildcats were dangerous, having beaten them five times during the season. Especially the Wildcats PP and big line were threats, but they prepared for them. They knew the Crunch had offensive firepower, and found effective ways to shut it down as well. My point is, the Coach and GM on this team are second to none, and deserve full credit.

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