Thunder head coach Wayne Strachan was pleased with the turnout and effort at the team’s first-ever tryout camp last weekend at the Memorial Sports Centre.
But he had to face the task of cutting more than half of 65 local and out-of-town hopefuls who took to the ice trying to earn a spot on the team’s roster.
As it stands now, the Thunder officially have 12 players signed on to play in their inaugural season of the Tier II Junior ‘A’ Superior International Junior Hockey League next month.
Eight others have been offered roster spots but currently are discussing it with their families.
“Everything went well,” said Strachan. “As coaches, we were very pleased with the turnout. We were very surprised with the talent that showed up.
“We didn’t know a whole lot about them,” he added. “We’re very happy with what we saw and what a lot of them could do.”
Strachan stressed how important it was to meet individually with every player—whether they were cut or not. No cuts were made between Friday to Sunday, and everyone took part in the scrimmages.
“It was so hard to narrow it down to a 20-25 man roster in that period of time,” he admitted.
By meeting with each player, Strachan added he wanted to consider how signing on with the Thunder would affect their growth.
“There’s so many kids that were so close. There were a couple of young kids that very well could have played,” he said. “[But] to take them and not give them the ice time to improve would not be beneficial to their development.”
Thunder president Shawn Jourdain and general manager Brent Tookenay also were on hand to answer any questions from families about the fledgling SIJHL and to scout some of the talent.
But ultimately, Tookenay gave the reins to Strachan and assistant coaches Shane Bliss and Sean Taggart.
“I let the coaching staff pick which people they thought had the best chance,” Tookenay said. “We’d like the coaching staff to be the ones who work directly with the players.”
Those impressing the coaching staff and agreed to sign on when asked included Kris Esselink, Ian Lockman, and Kevin Webb (Fort Frances), Boomer Redford (Emo), Clayton Windego (Red Gut Bay), Jack Benson (Round Lake), Marty Hanson and Tom Iwaniec (Nestor Falls), Adam Sus (Atikokan), and Eric Hnatiuk and Terry Perisian (Kenora).
The lone American to sign so far is Ryan Hilfer from International Falls.
The three locals have solid hockey experience. Lockman played for the Tagg’s ‘AA’ Bantam rep team and was coached by Strachan while Esselink and Webb played on last year’s Ontario ‘AA’ gold medal-winning Fort High Muskies.
Webb was this year’s co-MVP on the Muskies and still had a year of eligibility remaining.
In addition to the on-ice talent, Tookenay also was happy with crowds that came in to watch the scrimmages.
“We were very pleased with turnout and the interest in it,” he said. “Right through until Sunday the number of people watching in the stands was excellent.
“We were excited and I think we’re going to have a quality team. We’re looking forward to this season,” he enthused.
The coaches are hoping to schedule a mini-camp in late August for players who couldn’t make the tryouts last weekend. Tookenay said an additional 20-30 players will be invited.
Under SIJHL rules, the Thunder can have 45 junior cards on their team. But realistically, they will stick to 18 skaters and two goalies throughout the season, which starts with a tournament Sept. 14-15 in Thunder Bay.
As a back-up, the Thunder will have an affiliation with a Midget team based in Kenora, where players can sign their junior card and still play on their Midget team until they are called.
Six other teams will join the Couchiching-owned Thunder in the SIHJL, including the Dryden Ice Dogs, Northwest Knights (Spooner, Wis.), Iron Range Yellowjackets (Coleraine, Mn.), and three teams from Thunder Bay (the Wolves, KC Exterior Finishing Bulldogs, and Feathermen Hawks).