The 2013-2014 Creston Valley Thunder Cats.

The 2013-2014 Creston Valley Thunder Cats.

Strong season for Creston Valley Thunder Cats led to ‘unbelievable’ second-round playoff win

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  • Apr. 5, 2014 4:00 p.m.

The Creston Valley Thunder Cats’ 2013-2014 record wasn’t simply better than last season’s; it was an almost total reversal, with 17 wins and 28 losses becoming 39 wins and 17 losses.

That about-face helped the team move farther than ever before, ultimately losing to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in the third round of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs.

“I thought we were going to have a good year and some good opportunities,” said head coach and general manager Josh Hepditch. “We knew if we started with a core of players who came back, if we filled in a few holes, it would be a good team.”

Hepditch said he and the team made some mistakes last season, which cut short their play — they finished at the bottom of the Eddie Mountain Division without advancing to the playoffs — but with those lessons learned, the team returned stronger than ever.

“For the guys who did come back from last year, I’m so glad they did. … They were able to reap the benefits of going through the hard times,” said Hepditch.

This season, he said, the team was better able to trust the plan he and assistant coaches Travis Ludwar and Leigh Walker put in place, a plan that went beyond merely learning skills.

“The biggest thing was just respect,” said Hepditch. “We respected them as players and they respected us as coaches. When you do that, you can have a lot of fun.”

A core group of experienced players returned this season, which proved to be an advantage, but five 20-year-olds — Jesse Collins, Trevor Hanna, Brandon Formosa, Andrew Hodder and Jonathon Watt — are aging out. Three of them are among the KIJHL’s top 20 scorers, with Collins’ 91 points placing him second for the season, with Formosa in sixth place and Hanna in 12th. (Logan Styler, in his first year with Creston, follows in 14th place.) And Hodder and Watt are two of the team’s leading defencemen.

“Those are going to be huge holes to fill,” he said. “I don’t think you can ever replace Trevor Hanna. He’s been the heart and soul of the team since he got here.”

This was Hanna’s third season with the Thunder Cats — his points jumping from 29 to 59 to 71 over the seasons — and he will be moving on to Vermont’s Castleton State College on a scholarship next season.

While filling the holes is a challenge, it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the team. Although a core group returned for this season, 13 new players arrived, 10 of them rookies.

“For thirteen new guys to come in and do what they did, it’s awesome,” said Hepditch.

A decided advantage over last season was the team’s stability. Only a few players were replaced before the trade deadline — compared with the total of 39 who wore Thunder Cats jerseys over the course of the 2012-2013 season.

The Thunder Cats found their rhythm early in the season, winning at least one game in each of their first several weekends, leading to a 13-game winning streak early in 2014.

Crowds of over 500 came out to many games, with 1,000 in the audience for the game 7 win over the Kimberley Dynamiters in the second round of the playoffs, when the Thunder Cats won that round for the first time.

Although that win was “unbelievable”, Hepditch said, the team didn’t know how to react emotionally, which ultimately led to the Thunder Cats losing in five games to the Nitehawks in round 3.

“None of them had ever been to the third round before,” he said. “I think it made them hungry to try and top what they did this year.”

With a solid core hopefully returning, Hepditch is looking forward to watching their games improve alongside the newcomers.

“The process of the whole year is what I as coach enjoy the most,” he said. “It’s awesome to see kids we had at training camp last year and see the growth after two years. I thought the whole year got better every day.”

And with his second year of coaching Junior B hockey at an end, Hepditch is already looking forward to next season, as he passes on skills that will stick with the players for years to come.

“They’re learning so much about hockey and life,” he said. “You’re actually teaching them.”