The Creston Valley Thunder Cats may have placed a distant second in their division this season, but head coach Joe Martin is still pleased with the team’s record, although it could have been better if injuries and illness hadn’t sidelined several players early on.
“We lost games to teams below us in the standings,” he said. “The reason was that at the start of the season, from September to December — half of the season — we were very injured. …
“Once we were solid and the guys were healthy, we were right up there with the top teams in the league.”
The Thunder Cats finished the season with 26 wins, 19 losses, three ties and two overtime losses, which earned 57 points, 30 less than the Fernie Ghostriders, who dominated the Eddie Mountain Division of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League. Behind the Thunder Cats were the Golden Rockets, with 46 points, and the Kimberley Dynamiters, with 40. The Columbia Valley Rockies brought up the rear with 26.
“I would have liked 10 more games in the win column, because that’s how it should have been,” Martin said.
A constantly shifting roster, not to mention the initial lack of a starting goalie, also kept the team from quickly hitting its stride. KIJHL teams are allowed to go through 40 players before finalizing the roster; last year, the Thunder Cats went through 29, while this season, a total of 38 players were on the ice.
“When you go through that many players, it’s difficult to get things going early,” said Martin.
Having several older players on the team was an asset to the Thunder Cats this season, as they showed the younger players the ropes. Four, though, are now 20, and have aged out the KIJHL; each is now choosing which program to play for in the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League.
Robbie Stuckey, Alex McDougall and Kane Dawe are leaving the team, all three having sustained serious injuries this season – a broken jaw and 10 stitches for Stuckey, McDougall needing shoulder surgery, and Dawe also having shoulder problems. The latter will be greatly missed by fans, said Martin.
“He’s probably the most electric, most fun player for the fans to watch,” he said.
Also leaving the team will be Creston native Travis Ludwar, who has been on the Thunder Cats roster for five seasons. His dedication and hard work were noticed by staff and fans alike, and paid off in spades — with Ludwar earning the most games played (254), goals (114), assists (112) and points (226) in Thunder Cats history.
“He’s given the franchise huge effort and heart,” said Martin. “He’s taught lots of younger players to have passion for the game. That’s something he’s never lost.
“He has never once done something on the ice for personal gain. He always put the team first.”
In recognition of his record, Ludwar’s jersey (9) will be retired, only the third in the history of the Thunder Cats, following Pat Spring and Cole Yurkowski, whose jersey was retired in 2009 after he became the previous Thunder Cats leading scorer.
At least six other Thunder Cats will also be leaving before the 2011-2012 season; only four 19-year-olds are allowed on the team, and 10 Thunder Cats will reach that age shortly.
The older players who leave the team are, of course, eligible to play college-level hockey, and 12 out of 16 who have aged out during Martin’s tenure have gone on to do so, a key factor in enticing new recruits.
“We need to prove to other potential players that they’re going to move on to play on another level.”
For the players left behind, though, the experience gained over the last couple of seasons will help them become leaders next year, as they take a new set of rookies under their wing.
Martin hopes to add more local players to the team next season, and has a few prospects in mind, all of whom participated as affiliate players this season. They would join Alex Jmaeff, who ended up having a great season before being sidelined by the flu during the playoffs.
“He had a great finish to the year; I really enjoyed the transition,” he said. “Creston might lose him to junior A.”
Boswell’s Brendan Heinrich, who plays with the major midget team in Nelson, joined the Thunder Cats regularly during the season and for six playoff games.
“That kid’s got a spot on the team this year,” he said.
Minor hockey players, including Joel Wells and goalie James Rae, are on his list of prospects, particularly Jackson Hawton and Seth Schmidt.
“They’re young players who had a good season,” Martin said. “There’s no question that they’re really close.”