It’s going to be 24 hours later than initially planned, but the Soo Thunderbirds will open up Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League regular season action this weekend.
The team is set to begin regular season play on Saturday evening on the road against the Blind River Beavers.
The Thunderbirds were originally scheduled to open regular season action on Friday night against the Soo (Mich.) Eagles at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Sault, but that game is in the process of being rescheduled due to the current border restrictions due to COVID-19.
Even with the delayed start, excitement is building.
“The guys are excited,” said Thunderbirds coach Cole Jarrett. “We keep adding guys to the room daily and that excitement has kind of grown over the last week as new guys that have come in. For the local guys that were skating here through August and early-September, it makes things a little bit more real, and it pushes them to know that their spots are up for grabs. There’s lots of ice time to be had and that added another element of excitement to the room.”
Jarrett said his biggest request of the players is “to give an honest effort.”
“Looking ahead to this weekend, we haven’t had any exhibition games, so we’re jumping right into the fire,” Jarrett added. “I’m asking them to ‘Put your head down, go to work, give an honest effort for 60 minutes, and see what happens.”
Coming off a 2020-21 NOJHL season that saw COVID restrictions lead to teams playing on cohorts through the season, the 2021-22 season will see a return to more of a normal schedule with teams around the league facing divisional opponents for the first half of the season.
Following the Christmas break, cross-division games are scheduled to begin.
For the Thunderbirds, being a team that’s tough to play against is the hope.
“We want to be hard to play against; we want to be fast,” Jarrett said. “Today’s game, the pace is so high. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at. That’s what we stress to the players is playing with that pace, making sure that you can sustain it and ultimately, that will lead to putting pressure on the opponent and lead to scoring opportunities or momentum swings in the game.”
In the days leading up to Friday’s regular season opener, the team announced the signing of a pair of players as well as a trade with the Saskatchewan Junior League’s Weyburn Red Wings.
On Wednesday, the Thunderbirds acquired defenceman Connor Healy from Weyburn in exchange for a player development fee.
Healy, a native of Wausau, Wisc., played last season with Wausau West High School where he scored 13 goals and 34 points in 18 games.
In a prepared statement, Thunderbirds general manager Jamie Henderson said Healy will “help solidify our back end with his hard-nosed play.”
On Monday, the team signed a pair of players, including Youssef Chaouachi and local product Kenny Belanger Jr.
A draft pick of the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads in the 2021 OHL U18 Priority Selection, signing with the Thunderbirds is a return home after spending the 2019-20 season playing in Toronto with the Toronto Marlboros U16 team.
“Kenny came in and earned a roster spot and we’re excited to have him join the program,” Henderson said. “It’s always a big adjustment for any young player at this level, but with said we feel Kenny can push for more opportunities within the lineup as the season unfolds and his game continues to improve.”
Chaouachi, born in Tunisia before moving to Montreal, Que. when he was eight, was a member of the Kents Hill School Huskies in Kents Hill, Maine during the 2019-20 season and was on campus at the school for two seasons.
“I was on campus for both 2019-20 and 2020-21 at Kents Hill and it was two of the best years of my life,” Chaouachi said in a prepared statement. “I’ve met people that I never thought you can meet and they still hold a special place in my heart. Our team played an extremely competitive schedule where we faced teams that had multiple division 1 and division 3 commitments, so it was a blast competing against everyone.”
Henderson said the expectation is that Chaouachi will bring “a great work ethic and attitude everyday to the rink.”
“He’s a big guy who plays physical,” Henderson added.