THUNDER BAY – After 20 months, the Lakehead Thunderwolves are set to take the ice in competition on Thursday night.
It’s a night returning players have been waiting for since February 2020, when the team bowed out of the Ontario University Athletics men’s hockey playoffs, dropping two straight games to the Ryerson Rams.
It’s a program in flux.
The Thunderwolves haven’t won more games than they’ve lost since the 2013-14 campaign, when overtime losses are factored in, and have missed the playoffs twice in the past five seasons, unheard during the team’s heyday a decade earlier.
This year’s squad includes 15 new faces, and does not include the top three scorers from the 2019-20 campaign, with the departure of Tomas Soustal to Europe and Daniel Del Paggio and Josh Laframboise simply choosing not to return.
It’s time to build a new legacy, said rookie Thunder Bay defender Jayden Wojciechowski, who grew up following the Thunderwolves, going to games with his grandparents during the Peter Cava, Mitch Maunu and Chris Whitley era.
In those days, Lakehead was always on the short list of potential national champions.
It may take a little while to get back to that level, but Wojciechowski said the Wolves plan to make teams fearful once again of heading into a Fort William Gardens contest.
“We’re never out of it. We’re going to be here every night trying our best and hopefully that comes out with wins,” said Wojiechowski, a graduate of the Thunder Bay Kings program who is coming off of three years with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Virden Oil Capitals.
It starts with this weekend’s action against the NCAA Division 3 Northland College Lumberjacks, a pair of non-conference tilts at Fort William Gardens.
“Lots of us haven’t played in a long time and everybody’s excited to get that going, it should be a good weekend.”
Fellow defenceman Tyler Jette, who picked up two assists in 16 OUA contests in 2019-20 with the Thunderwolves, and said it’s a young group that needed to find chemistry in a hurry.
“We’ve got 15 or 16 new guys, but we’ve been in the gym every day and we go play sports outside of hockey together. We’ve been practising for two months and we’re ready,” Jette said. “The chemistry is there.
“It’s surreal. It’s been 20 months since any of us have played, that didn’t play junior last year, a hockey game. It’s going to be unreal. The atmosphere in here, everybody’s itching to get outside their house, so I think we should get a good crowd and feed off that this weekend and work toward our ultimate end goal,” Jette said.
Thunderwolves coach Andrew Wilkins said six weeks of training camp is great, but players are champing at the bit to take on some meaningful competition, rather than just inter-squad scrimmages.
“Just to play some games and get back in the Gardens, I couldn’t be happier,” said Wilkins, who took over the club before the 2018-19 campaign.
“I think we’ll be fast. We have guys who can make plays one through fourth line. We have two or three really good goalies. I think up front we’re going to be deeper, but obviously a lot younger. There are guys looking to proved they belong in this league.”
Wilkins will also be looking for new goal scorers to emerge, knowing the top line of Laframboise, Soustal and Del Paggio is no more.
Claw marks: Former LU assistant and Thunder Bay North Stars head coach Jeremy Adduono is back behind the bench for the Thunderwolves as an assistant this season ... Puck drop is 7 p.m. ... The women's basketball and volleyball teams are also in action at home this weekend.