How do you follow up a nearly perfect season?
That’s the challenge the Airdrie Techmation Thunder will wrestle with this year, after a historic 2018-19 campaign saw the Junior B team win the Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) title for the first time in 19 years, as well as the franchise’s first-ever provincial Junior B championship.
“I’ve coached hockey for over 20 years and seasons like last year don’t come along every day,” head coach Derek Stamp said. “When they do, and you finally get to look back at it, you realize just how special it is.”
The Thunder boasted remarkable numbers last year, which gained the team national recognition as the top-ranked Junior B hockey team in Canada. Airdrie boasted a 35-3-0 record in regular season play before going 11-2 in the HJHL playoffs.
“It was a professional group of young men that knew what to do – they came prepared and knew how to execute,” Stamp said. “When you have that kind of a process, the results take care of themselves.”
The one-of-a-kind season wrapped in style April 7, when the Thunder defeated the Wainwright Bisons in overtime in the gold-medal game.
“Winning the provincial title was one thing, but the really special aspect was the guys – how they came together and how close they were,” Stamp said.
If the Thunder manages to retain its titles, it will be with a vastly different crop of players, as roughly a dozen members have moved on.
A key player who has aged out of junior hockey is forward Rylan Plante-Crough, who garnered more than 100 points last year.
Other departed players include Barrett Sheen, who brought three seasons of Western Hockey League experience to the Thunder, as well as captain Jacob MacDonald and Zach Giroux.
Last year’s Rookie of the Season winner, Brett LeGrandeur, has moved up to the Junior A level in Saskatchewan, while a handful of players – including Jason Wenzel, Tyler McCarry, goaltender Ryan Simpson and Cooper Page – will play for university teams in the United States.
All together, those players accounted for more than 500 of the Thunder’s points last year.
“We’re really proud of the kids who were able to turn their seasons last year into opportunities elsewhere, whether that’s [LeGrandeur] getting an opportunity to play Junior A, or the kids going down south to play at schools,” Stamp said.
“We wish them all the luck in the world.”
With the 2019-20 season just around the corner, Stamp and his coaching staff are hard at work rebuilding the roster.
“We’re always working to make sure we have the most competitive hockey team we can,” he said. “We have a culture we’ve developed and a certain style and type of player we’d like to see.
“We think if we bring in guys that fit that mould, the wins and losses take care of themselves.”
Despite the exodus of players, there will likely still be representation from last year’s team. Returning forward Jordan McConnell, 21, set an HJHL scoring record with 125 points last season. Other veteran players suiting up in 2019-20 include blue-liner Kirkland Spencer, forward Ty Petrie and Tristan Paquette.
Those in the “maybe” column, according to Stamp, include defenceman Ben Orde and last year’s overtime-hero, Brayden Dunn.
Backstopping the Thunder will be second-year goaltender Jackson Little, who split playing time with Simpson last season.
“We were extremely happy with how he did as a rookie, and we have all the confidence in the world that he’ll come to camp and be ready to take a big step forward,” Stamps said.
Airdrie’s official training camp kicks off Sept. 3, and the team’s first preseason exhibition will take place Sept. 6, when the Thunder takes on the Cochrane Generals. Puck-drop is set for 8 p.m. at the Ron Ebbesen Arena.
The first battle of the regular season will be Sept. 20, when the Thunder faces off against the Medicine Hat Cubs, in Airdrie. The game starts at 8 p.m.