It’s not a common off-season for the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Soo Thunderbirds.
COVID-19 ended the 2019-20 NOJHL season early and the pandemic has made things tough as the team looks ahead to next season.
“Every year is difficult in this league and in junior hockey, trying to get kids to commit early,” Thunderbirds general manager Trev Zachary said. “This year it’s even more difficult because we just don’t know what the situation is. We spoke to all of the guys who could potentially be returning just to basically say, ‘Keep us posted and I’ll keep you guys posted with information.’”
“We have a number of U.S. players,” Zachary added. “Can they cross the border? And the new players too that we’ve talked to, some U.S. players and other players from around Ontario as well. We just don’t know what’s happening. My deadlines, maybe last year it would have been June 1st. Well, this year it might be August 1st with regards to returning players and making sure I know who’s coming back and who’s gone. It’s unprecedented.”
With just a pair of players on their roster born in 1999 (Nolan Ford and Jacob Broucha), the Thunderbirds 2019-20 roster featured 17 players with junior eligibility remaining.
The Thunderbirds are coming off a 30-19-3-4 record in 2019-20, good enough for third in the NOJHL’s West Division.
When the 2020-21 season opens, the Thunderbirds will also have a new head coach after announcing on Friday that the team parted ways with John Parco.
Zachary said the decision was: "very mutual.”
“We had been talking back and forth quite a bit about the new season,” Zachary said. “JP wants to be busier with his business. He has a number of things planned for the business and with COVID-19, it’s been difficult. He can’t even get into his business. That really is his priority right now, and it needs to be. And his family being away to, that’s got to be tough on him.”
Exactly where things stand for the 2020-21 season remain up in the air.
“We’re certainly hoping to start on time,” Zachary said. “But we don’t know if we’re going to be starting with fans or not or where we’re going to be playing or how many teams are going to be in the league. I’m sure there will be others that will have sponsorship problems with businesses. At this point, it’s just at the direction of Hockey Canada. When they say we can do a summer camp potentially, we’ll do that and go from there.”
When the season does get underway, the league’s will be down one team as the Elliot Lake Wildcats announced earlier this month that the team was taking a one-year leave of absence.
“This was not an easy decision by the board, but there is simply too much uncertainty around the long-term impact of the COVID-19 restrictions to allow us to make a reasonable plan for icing a team in the fall,” Wildcats president Len Kutchaw said in a prepared statement, “however we are committed to the league and to having a strong, competitive Wildcats team in the future.”