A COVID-19 outbreak at the end of 2021 derailed a positive run of form for the Airdrie Techmation Thunder.
After rounding 2021 off with a four-game unbeaten run, the Thunder's winning momentum was dashed in the early weeks of the new year thanks to a string of positive COVID-19 cases, which meant the junior B hockey team was unable to practise or play with a full roster for nearly a month.
"There were 10, 12, 15 guys who tested positive, and we did not practise or skate until our game against Sylvan Lake last Tuesday," said head coach Chad Moore. "It was really tough on the boys. They weren’t 100 per cent at that point in time, and to hop into a game like that, it obviously didn’t work out well.”
The outbreak came at an inopportune time, as the Thunder now have just three games left to salvage their season in the Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL). With seven losses on the trot, the team has dropped to fifth place in the HJHL's seven-team North Division with a 15-14-2 record.
Since the turn of the calendar, Airdrie has lost all seven games they've played, starting with a 7-0 blanking by the Rocky Rams on Jan. 8
Moore said the healthy players did the best they could with a depleted roster and a lack of preparation.
"We worked hard, showed up, and did what we could, but you can’t compete unprepared in this league," he said. "We could only control what we could control. We couldn’t be on the ice or be together as a team for almost five weeks, and that’s tough. It's tough emotionally and mentally, and certainly physically."
The Thunder's next game saw the Airdrie squad suffer another setback, losing 8-3 to the Sylvan Lake Wranglers on Jan. 18.
Further defeats followed at the hands of the Rocky Rams and Cochrane Generals on Jan. 21 and 22. Airdrie fell 4-3 to the Rams in overtime before losing 4-2 to the North Division-leading Generals.
According to Moore, the Thunder tied it up late to force overtime against the Rams, but couldn't find the net in OT.
"We’ve been very successful in overtime and in shootouts this year so far, but this one didn’t go our way," he said. "We can’t hang our heads – the boys played pretty strong for 40, 45 minutes of the game. We did steal a point, which was a good thing."
On Jan. 25, the Thunder had an enticing road game against the South Division-leading Okotoks Bisons.
Okotoks has been the cream of the crop of this year's HJHL, and entered the game against Airdrie with just three defeats on their record.
“We were looking forward to that – I had it circled in my calendar," Moore said. "The way we were playing to finish off 2021, I was really focusing on that game as an opportunity to send a message league-wide."
Though the Thunder started strong and took a 2-1 lead into the second period, Moore said a series of silly penalties and turnovers cost the Thunder and allowed the host Bisons to regain momentum. Okotoks went on to score six unanswered goals in the final 40 minutes to leave the ice with a 7-2 victory.
"Okotoks is one hell of a hockey team," Moore said. "They’re structured very well, they’re big, strong and fast.
"Teams like that are going to score goals when they have opportunities.”
Two more defeats came in a home-and-home series against the Generals on Jan. 28 and 29. The return fixture saw Cochrane forward Patrick Forde score his 50th goal of the HJHL regular season.
Airdrie returned to the ice Feb. 2 (after press time) to take on the Red Deer Vipers.
There are now just two games left in the regular season. In order to climb out of their fifth-place spot and book a solid berth in the HJHL playoffs, Moore said the Thunder needs to get better at minimizing mistakes, turnovers, and penalties.
While Airdrie's players were mostly back to full health as of Jan. 27, Moore said injury issues have also plagued the team's progress. Dylan Westlake, one of the team's leading scorers, was out with a knee injury, while captain Luke Jensen was also forced to sit in the stands for recent games due to a sprained ankle.
"We’re still battling through it and not 100 per cent, but the level of effort I’ve seen in the games so far is certainly there," Moore said. "That’s a positive we’re taking away.”
The Thunder will wrap up the regular season with road games Feb. 4 and 5 against the High River Flyers and Strathmore Wheatland Kings.