While their recent accomplishments have been overshadowed somewhat, members of the Soo Thunderbirds are coming to Humboldt determined to do themselves, the city of Sault Ste. Marie and the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League proud.
Having won the Dudley Hewitt Cup, emblematic of Central Region supremacy, the T-Birds will begin play at the RBC Cup with a new bench boss.
Zoltan ‘Toots’ Kovacs was named the club's interim head coach on April 27, after the NOJHL suspended head coach Preston Mizzi and assistant Jamie Henderson over incidents in which alcohol was consumed by players and staff on the team's bus.
“We're going to the RBC to play for them,” Corey Jackson, named the NOJHL's best defenceman this season, said of Mizzi and Henderson. “They got us here and losing them is devastating, but we have to move forward. I'm very excited. I don't think the coaching change will be a big adjustment for us. We're a pretty tight-knit team.”
Captain Micky Sartoretto, named the league's playoff MVP, said going to the rink has provided an escape from off-ice news.
“Our coaches preached about staying together as teammates and focusing on playing hockey,” said Sartoretto, who spent three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League before joining his hometown Junior A team this season. “We have to play for each other and we won't underestimate ourselves at the RBC Cup.”
Neither will Kovacs, a former OHLer with the Soo Greyhounds in the late 1970s.
A Soo Greyhounds assistant coach for two years under Craig Hartsburg, Kovacs said he expects big things from his charges over the nine-day tourney.
“These guys have faced a hell of a lot of adversity over the last few weeks,” said the 52-year-old Kovacs, who, beginning in 2004, was the T-Birds head coach for two seasons. “You either let it get you down or you fight through it. These guys have fought through it and I don't expect anything less at the RBC Cup.”
The Soo finished the NOJHL season with the league's best record, 37-11-2, but saved its best hockey for the playoffs.
The Thunderbirds went 12-2 in the post-season, including a 4-1 victory over the North Bay Trappers in the best-of-seven league finals.
At the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Thunder Bay, the T-Birds confidence – unshakable through the NOJHL campaign – faced a major test.
After back-to-back wins to open the tournament, the Soo dropped a 10-2 decision to the Ontario Junior Hockey League champions, the Stouffville Spirit, on the final day of round-robin play.
After beating the host Thunder Bay North Stars 8-5 in the semifinal, the Thunderbirds came up against the Spirit with an RBC Cup berth on the line.
Prohibitive underdogs, the Soo rode a 44-save performance by netminder John Kleinhans to a 5-3 victory despite being outshot 47-16.
It's that kind of clutch performance the T-Birds are hoping for in Humboldt.
“I know there'll be some really good teams there,” said centre Greg Sartoretto, Micky's younger brother. “But if we put our minds to it, I don't think we take a back seat to anybody.”
Winger Matt Amadio, who joins the Sartorettos on the Soo's top line, calls the chance to play in the RBC Cup “a great experience,” and says he and his teammates are excited about testing themselves against the best Junior A teams in the country.
“If we compete hard, we'll do well,” said Amadio, chosen the top forward at the Dudley Hewitt Cup. “We're going to have to play for each other, be unselfish and get goaltending from Kleinhans. If that happens, I think we'll do pretty well.”