This is the Life: Creston Valley Thunder Cats breaking new ground with division title

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My weekend plans didn’t include taking in a hockey game, but on Saturday night I found myself checking out the KIJHL website to see how the Creston Valley Thunder Cats were making out. At about 10 p.m. there was no score posted on the site. A while later, the news I was looking for finally popped up. Not only had the Thunder Cats bounced back from a 3-1 game deficit in the semifinal series against the Kimberley Dynamiters, they had overcome a 4-1 score going into the third period.

I could only image what the sound of a thousand fans was like as the home side roared back with four unanswered goals to earn a 5-4 victory. The Cats might have finished the season 20 points up on Kimberley, but the Dynamiters have a very nice history of playoff season victories against Creston.

In fact, Creston fans and players alike have had reason to build up a pretty good dislike for the Dynamiters. Since the Cats joined the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League in 2000-2001, Kimberley has ended their season six times, all in the semifinals, or first round of the playoffs. It has been left to an even bigger nemesis, the Fernie Ghostriders, to dispatch the Thunder Cats in the three previous times that they moved on to the second round, in 2007, 2010 and 2011. In only one of those series did the team even manage to win a game. That came in 2011, when Creston forced the series to a seventh game before bowing out.

As the Cats move into uncharted territory this week, I am happy for the players and fans, of course. But even more, I am thrilled for the executive and for head coach-general manager Josh Hepditch. The executive gets credit, as it always should, for keeping junior hockey alive in the Creston Valley. Each year seems to present a new financial challenge, one that isn’t helped when the team doesn’t host many playoff games. Teams budget for the season and a long run in the playoffs can result in a very healthy addition to the bottom line.

Having been able to keep Hepditch on this long has certainly been the biggest factor in this year’s success. When I wrote a feature story about him early in his first year I described him as a young man who gave me the sense that one day I would be saying, “I knew him when…’ ” Hepditch had great success as a two-way player with national champion University of New Brunswick teams, and cites current Buffalo Sabre coach Ted Nolan as a mentor. Everything about his manner exudes quiet competence and strength. He isn’t likely to remain in Creston much longer, especially after this great season, one that will guarantee that he will attract attention from other teams in other leagues. But we are a better community for having had him among us.

Another sure sign that Hepditch and the Thunder Cats executive have been doing all the right things is in the quality of players they have been able to attract. The organization puts a high value on character, and it has paid off. In the past two years, Thunder Cats players have participated in the Reach a Reader program, a fundraiser and awareness program for local literacy efforts. Each player I have met and chatted with while they sold our newspapers on the street has been friendly, enthusiastic and quick with a smile. I have heard only positive comments from the many groups that have benefited from the team’s volunteer efforts.

On Sunday morning I chatted with my son, Ryan, on the phone from his home in Calgary. He played goal for the Thunder Cats for two years and has continued to follow the team. Like me, he was checking for scores on Saturday night.

“When I checked I saw they were down 4-1 after two periods and I thought, ‘Too, bad, but they had a great run.’ ” He, too, had experienced the frustration of losing a playoff series to the Dynamiters.

“Then I checked for the final score this morning when I got up and I couldn’t believe it!” he said. “What a comeback!”

Minor and junior hockey played a huge role in Ryan’s development. He’s great father and husband, a respected RCMP officer and kind, decent man. I know the parents of today’s Thunder Cat players will be saying the same things in years to come. And they will have great memories of their sons’ great 2014 season, which saw their team advance to the third round of the KIJHL playoffs for the first time ever.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.