On the cusp of being upset by a lower seeded team that had finished nine points behind them in the regular season standings, Soo Thunderbirds rallied from a three games to none deficit to edge the Hearst Lumberjacks for the 2022 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League playoff championship.
In a Game 7 thriller that went to overtime, veteran forward Brock Santa Maria scored the winning goal and rookie goalie Noah Metivier made 53 saves as the Thunderbirds completed a comeback for the ages with a 3-2 win over the Lumberjacks.
Thus, the Thunderbirds took the best-of-seven series four games to three and will represent the NOJHL at the 10-team Centennial Cup, national junior A championship tournament that begins on May 19.
Starting at elimination in four straight games, the Thunderbirds were able to surge back to win all four, including two in Hearst. Overtime also favoured the Thunderbirds in Game 6 in Hearst.
The title series triumph capped a story book campaign in the NOJHL for the Thunderbirds, a team well put together by general manager Jamie Henderson and who finished first overall during the regular season with 81 points from a record of 38-5-5. The Thunderbirds closed the regular season with 18 straight victories and then won eight more in a row in sweeping both the Blind River Beavers and Soo Eagles out of the West Division playoffs.
As for Hearst, the Lumberjacks had a memorable season that fell a game shy of winning the NOJHL crown. Hearst finished in second place in the East Division with 72 points from a regular season record of 35-11-2. The Lumberjacks then needed six games to oust the Powassan Voodoos, seven more to finally eliminate the Timmins Rock and then took the favoured Thunderbirds to the seventh and deciding match of the league finals.
Notably, the last time the NOJHL declared a champion was pre Covid, in 2019. Ironically, that series also featured the Soo and Hearst and it also went to a seventh and deciding game with the Lumberjacks skating to glory on the road.
Three years later, the 2022 championship is a feather in the cap for Thunderbirds first-year part owner and head coach Cole Jarrett.
Jarrett and and his good friend Trevor Daley obtained operational control of the Thunderbirds a year ago from local businessman Darren Smyl, who had presided over the Thunderbirds since 2017.
Jarrett and Daley were both drafted into the Ontario Hockey League in 1999 as players born in 1983.
A Sault Ste. Marie product, Jarrett was a third round pick (44th overall) of the Plymouth Whalers (now Flint Firebirds) while Daley was a first round selection (10th overall) by the Soo Greyhounds. Both players would play four seasons in the OHL and develop as standout defensemen who captained their respective teams.
A natural leader, Jarrett was a captain on just about every team he ever played on, including in the OHL with Plymouth. Jarrett’s pro career took him to the American Hockey League, the National Hockey League and overseas to Finland, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Japan and England.
He has since been involved in minor hockey in the Sault as a director and a coach after returning home with his wife and their two kids following his retirement as a player in 2018. Besides coaching the Thunderbirds, Jarrett also coached within the Sault Major Hockey Association in 2021-2022 as part of the under 11 program.
As for Daley, the Toronto product has an association to Sault Ste. Marie besides having played for the Greyhounds, given that his wife is from the Soo and they maintain a residence in the area.
Daley, to be sure, had an outstanding pro career after graduating from the OHL and the Greyhounds.
A second round pick by the Dallas Stars at the 2002 NHL draft, Daley would go on to play 16 seasons at the game’s highest level, skating in more than 1,100 games, playoffs included.
Besides Dallas, Daley also suited up for the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. He retired as an NHL player in 2020 and took a job as a hockey operations advisor with the NHL Penguins.
Jarrett and Daley become the sixth owners of the Thunderbirds since their 1999 NOJHL inception.
From founder Sam Biascucci, the Thunderbirds then went on to a succession of fellow local operators that included Pat Egan/Al Jones to JoAnne Brooks/Albert Giommi to the aforementioned Darren Smyl, who rescued the franchise in 2017 from a company known as the The Tech 1921 Ltd.