Soo Thunderbirds are part of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, an under-rated loop that annually sends a number of players to the Ontario Hockey League as well as the American collegiate ranks.
And not only are Thunderbird supporters reveling in the wake of the Soo's title triumph at the Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. A Hockey Championships, that were held last week in Thunder Bay but the league itself is taking delight in the fact that it's the first such accomplishment for an NOJHL team since the now-defunct Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats won it in 2002.
After winning the four-team Dudley Hewitt Cup, culiminating with a 5-3 win over the Stouffville Spirit of the supposedly-superior Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the Thunderbirds will now represent the NOJHL and all of Ontario at the Royal Bank Cup, Canadian Jr. A Hockey Championships, which will be held in Humboldt, Sask. starting on May 5.
The fact that the Thunderbirds won both the NOJHL and Dudley Hewitt Cup championships for this 2011-12 season did not come as a surprise to me.
I've been saying since before the current season began that Thunderbird general manager Kevin Cain had assembled as talented and experienced a team as I have seen in the years that I have been closely covering the NOJHL.
Cain used his hockey contacts, not to mention the cheque book of Thunderbirds president Albert Giommi, in spending money to bring high-end players such as forwards Micky Sartoretto and Matt Amadio and defenceman Dylan Connolly back home to Sault Ste. Marie from other junior leagues. Cain also laid out cash and excess players to land a pair of plums in trades with other NOJHL teams, getting lanky centre Brett Campbell from the Blind River Beavers and American-born goalie John Kleinhans from the cross-river Soo Eagles.
Of note, Sartoretto and Campbell are just two of six Thunderbirds who began their NOJHL careers in Blind River only to request -- and be granted -- trades to the Soo squad. League most valuable defenceman Corey Jackson, fellow blueliner Brad Pascall and forwards Greg Sartoretto and Cody Zorzi are the other ex-Beavers who played varying roles on this season's Thunderbird championship team.
Let it be noted that while former Blind River coach Jim Capy and Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo weren't thrilled about being asked to deal top players to the rival Thunderbirds, it's a credit to them that they respectfully honoured the requests when, to be honest, they could have dealt the players in question elsewhere.
Without question, there are many within the volunteer-driven Thunderbird organization who can take a bow for this season's success, from Giommi and Cain and their associates and assistants to head coach Preston Mizzi and the rest of the hockey staff.
Really, though, this is about the players.
Afterall, we always hear about managers, coaches et al saying they "are in this for the kids" and we assume they mean what they say.
On the ice, the Thunderbirds did the Sault Ste. Marie hockey community and the NOJHL proud with a championship season that still has another stop to make.
Off the ice, reports of alleged misconduct involving members of the Thunderbird organization will not go away until they are dealt with, apropos.
For now, relative to their championship success, we say: "Well done, Thunderbirds".