A pair of consecutive shutout defeats brought an end to what was otherwise a strong playoff run for the Airdrie Techmation Thunder.
Airdrie's local junior B hockey team saw their 2023 Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) post-season wrap on March 18 at the Ron Ebbesen Arena, after a 2-0 loss to the visiting Sylvan Lake Wranglers. The Central Alberta side triumphed four games to two in the best-of-seven HJHL north division finals.
“Of course, we’re disappointed in the loss because we were up 2-1 in the series,” said Thunder head coach Randy Buckle.
“There's disappointment, but we’ll build from here. We went further than last year and we got better this year, so we’re just going to try to keep improving year to year.”
As Buckle pointed out, Airdrie had led the playoff series 2-1 after wins on March 10 and 12. But the Wranglers wrangled their way back into it with a 3-2 victory on March 14 to tie the series two games to two.
Sylvan Lake then shut out the Thunder 3-0 on March 17 and 2-0 on March 18 to secure the series 4-2, and book their berth in the HJHL finals, where they will face the Okotoks Carstar Bisons.
“It just felt like we lost our scoring touch there in the last couple of games,” said Buckle, adding most of the series against the Wranglers was a defensive battle.
“We had our chances. Sylvan Lake is a really good defensive team. If you looked at our round against Mountainview, the shots were pretty high, and in this round, the shots were a lot lower for both teams.”
As is always the case, the last game of the season also marked the final game of junior hockey for a cohort of Thunder players. This year, the team's graduating members include captain Dace Carlson, Mathew MacDonald, Jacob Cathcart, and Brandt Grimeau.
Reached Monday morning, Carlson said the Thunder players were still reflecting on Saturday night's defeat, adding it was a tough way to finish the season. As one of the team's graduating players, he admitted it was even tougher.
“We were just down,” he said. “It’s not something you want, but it’s inevitable that at some point, your hockey career is going to end.
“But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We had a good group this year and went far. We were hoping to have done better than we did, but we still made it to the north division finals. There were a couple bad bounces, and that’s the way it goes.”
As a three-year member of the Thunder, and as a local product of Airdrie Minor Hockey, Carlson said it was an honour to play with, and then captain, his hometown's junior team.
“I could have gone to different places, but decided to stay at home,” he said. “I’m happy I did. [Playing in front of friends and family] is an awesome thing to do. You can work and play hockey with a great group of guys. Most of them I’ve known my whole life.”
Busy off-season ahead
While competitive hockey is over for the Thunder until next fall, Buckle said there won't be much downtime as the team's staff and ownership group prepare for a hectic spring and summer.
He said the Thunder are already preparing to host a spring training camp next month to scout next year's roster, and the team's annual awards banquet will be held on April 19.
In addition, Buckle said the Thunder hope to host an alumni game this summer, and also bring back a three-on-three tournament the junior B organization used to put on before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The work has just begun, really, for next year,” Buckle said on Monday. “There’s not much of a break. We took yesterday off but [preparations for next year] already started this morning.”
With only four Thunder players aging out this spring, Buckle said next year's Thunder roster should have a strong team chemistry already in place, as there are approximately 15 players who could realistically return to the line-up.
“We have a solid foundation and the next steps will be a spring camp in April we'll trying to fill up with new players,” he said.
“We’re hoping to get some new players in for next year and continue this success.”