A late Christmas present arrived for the Airdrie Techmation Thunder, in the form of Jason Wenzel’s return.
Wenzel, who was the Heritage Junior Hockey League’s (HJHL) Defenseman of the Year in last year’s championship-winning campaign for the Thunder, has returned to the squad for the remainder of the season.
“He brings a talent level that is probably tops in this league,” head coach Derek Stamp said. “He gives us an extra element, both offensively and defensively.”
Despite playing on defence, Wenzel recorded 20 goals and 65 assists in the Thunder’s dominant 2018-19 campaign, which put him among the HJHL’s top-five scorers.
The 21-year-old was one of three Thunder departures from 2018-19 who went to Montana to play for the University of Providence Argonauts – a team that competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
However, Wenzel’s background in the Western Hockey League – he played 57 games for the Kootenay Ice in 2015-16 – ruled him ineligible for the NAIA. While he was added to the Argonaut’s coaching staff, he said the itch to play was too strong, which meant a return to Alberta after just one semester.
"It was hard to watch the boys play every night," Wenzel said in a Thunder statement. "I wanted to be out there, so it wasn't my favourite thing in the world.
"I had the chance to transfer up here and come join the Thunder, so I'm excited."
Wenzel’s impact has already been felt – in just his second game, he scored Airdrie’s winning goal in a 5-4 overtime victory Jan. 12 against the Sylvan Lake Wranglers.
While Wenzel’s return will be a boon to the Thunder’s backline, Stamp admitted the mid-season acquisition was bittersweet. Because the HJHL only allows for four 21-year-old players on each team, Wenzel’s arrival meant the release of fellow veteran Kirkland Spencer.
Like Wenzel, Spencer was one of Airdrie’s defensive leaders in 2018-19. He was a participant in the HJHL All-Star Game, and earned the Sportsmanship Award at the Thunder’s end-of-season banquet.
“We just had to make that decision, and we did the best we could with the information that was available,” Stamp said.
“[Spencer will] be around the rink, still cheering for the guys, so we will still see him. We’re just disappointed he can’t be in the line-up.”
2020 did not start off kindly for the team, as it dropped points in its first two games of the calendar year. But the Thunder rebounded from those losses, staying atop the North Division standings with a pair of wins Jan. 10 and 12 that boosted the team’s record to 23-6-1.
Stamp said it was positive the athletes faced adversity, as the losses provided the players a wake-up call.
“We’d gone away from some of the things that made us successful, and we were playing more of a loose type of game – we coined it as lazy hockey,” he said.
With just nine fixtures remaining before the post-season, Stamp said finding and maintaining a playoff tempo will be the priority for the homestretch of the regular season.
“In this league, games change when the playoffs start,” he said. “The checking gets a little tighter, it gets more physical and there is less room to make plays. We’re going to have to tighten up a few different areas of our game, but we’re working on it, and we think it will be positive.”
The Thunder’s next outing will be Jan. 17 against the Red Deer Vipers – the second-place team in the North Division. It should be a solid battle, as Red Deer is currently on a 10-game winning streak.
Puck-drop is set for 8 p.m. at the Ron Ebbesen Arena.