soo group celebration 640

Hometown heroes

A roster heavy with Sault Ste. Marie natives has helped the Thunderbirds to the RBC Cup

Derek Jory
May 11, 2015

If familiarity breeds contempt, no one told the Soo Thunderbirds.

Of all the teams competing at the 2015 RBC Cup in Portage la Prairie, Man., none are as tight knit as the Thunderbirds, a group of 23 players head coach Jordan Smith calls the “brotherhood.”

At first glance, the Thunderbirds don’t appear any different than the other four teams competing for Junior A hockey supremacy. The players connect well on the ice and even better off of it; they’re all great friends with one common goal.

What makes this team unique is that it’s been coming together since 1994.

Seventeen of the 23 players hail from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., home of the Thunderbirds, while another comes from nearby Garden River.

With nearly 75 per cent of the team from the same city and more than 85 per cent from the same province, the Thunderbirds are much more than acquaintances, to say the least. They’ve grown up together through thick and thin.

“You almost think ‘what are the odds of that happening?’, but it’s a good feeling for sure,” said Matt Pinder, a 19-year-old forward who had 42 points in 47 games this season.

“For the most part I’ve played hockey with or against almost every single guy on this team. It feels good. Going to the rink and knowing everyone makes it a pleasure. Going to hang out with your buddies every day, there’s nothing better than that.”

This is Pinder’s first season with the team. He joined the Thunderbirds from the GOJHL’s Cambridge Winterhawks and was one just one of 11 players picked up by Soo this past offseason.

Considering how often players are shuffled up, down and all around in Junior A hockey, Pinder credits low turnover as another reason for the Soo’s fantastic season. It finished first in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League with a 38-7-1-6 record, and plowed through the NOJHL playoffs en route to a Dudley Hewitt Cup championship.

Now here it is in Portage la Prairie, and the brotherhood is hungry for more.

“Everyone is a little bit nervous and excited, but we’re just looking forward to getting going,” said Pinder, who was one of nine Thunderbirds that finished fifth at the 2013 TELUS Cup with the host Sault Ste. Marie North Stars.

“Hopefully we can draw on that experience. We’ve had a pretty successful year and I feel good with this being the tightest group of guys I’ve ever been with.”

Coach Jordan Smith is relying on his team’s camaraderie as much as anything else heading into the 2015 RBC Cup.

Life as a head coach is never easy, but in all his years behind the bench, he’s never seen a team like this.

“It’s a great group of kids, they’re playing for each other and you can really tell on the ice they’re a tight group and they want to win for each other,” said Smith. “I think it comes back to no one having a personal agenda, it’s all about the team and playing for each other and I think that’s why we’re still playing.”

By the quarter mark of a season, most teams have had a chance to come together and the rest of the year they’re able to show what they’ve got. With 12 returning players, the Thunderbirds had the luxury of hitting the ground running this year. Not only that, the usual ebb and flow of the season was replaced with consistency – you don’t win 38 regular season games without a solid roster top to bottom.

The Thunderbirds have just that, in spades.

“Through the course of the season when you may doubt yourself and you may doubt what you’re doing or how you’re playing, you rally around each other and use each other as support systems and that’s what they did. Whether it’s issues away from the rink or issues at the rink, they’re been able to sort those out themselves and work together.

“We’re just a good hockey team that is obviously playing for each other at this point and we’re looking to have that as a form of momentum in our corner.”

If you’re looking for an x-factor for the Thunderbirds, there it is.

Now the true test is before them and with years of experience and a hockey mad community at their back, they’ll give it all they’ve got. They’re ready, said Smith.

“They understand it’s a national championship, a national stage and it’s the best of the best, but we’re not here taking pictures and putting them in scrapbooks. We’re not in awe, we know we have the right to be here and we’re excited to compete against the best of the best.

“We’re not satisfied, we’re not complacent, we want to come in and maybe surprise some teams.”

A surprise 21 years in the making.

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

[email protected] 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

[email protected]

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

[email protected]

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