Thunder season closes amid tears, mediocrity

So close no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters.
As the funeral-like music of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” echoed from the Borderland Thunder’s dressing room here Saturday night, the players hunched over their stalls to untie their skates.
They had done this a countless number of times this season, but this time was different. This time would be their last. Their season was done. Coming to a halting end at the hands of the Fort William First Nation North Stars.
A team that chipped away their confidence and unveiled their weaknesses to sweep the best-of-seven series and be crowned the SIJHL champs again.
The showers were turned on and steam crept through the bottom of their dressing room door.
And while some tried to clean off the feelings of despondency they were drenched in, others remained seated and listened to more words from James Hetfield of Metallica—“Never opened myself this way/Life is ours, we live it our way/All these words I don’t just say/And nothing else matters.”
They did so while looking above to a $100 hockey stick, whose real value lay in what it symbolized.
Hung from the ceiling with two pieces of thread was a TPS goalie stick bearing signatures from every Thunder player and pucks wrapped with white tape.
It was seen by each player as they entered the dressing room with this message inked on one of its sides: “To do the possible, we must attempt the impossible, to be as much as we can be, we must dream of being more. Let’s make our own story, boys!”
“I really wanted something for the guys to look up to—kind of like climbing a mountain—with each puck being a stepping stone to the eventual goal,” said Thunder goalie Tyler Gordon, who was behind the idea.
Eight pucks were wrapped. Four already had been written on from their sweep of the Dryden Ice Dogs in the semi-finals.
But after a 4-3 loss to the North Stars in Game 1, and then a 7-4 defeat in Game 2, the Sharpie was starting to collect dust as the Thunder headed back to Fort Frances for Games 3 and 4 this past Friday and Saturday night.
Game 3 was billed as the team’s biggest of the season, but it was in that game where the Thunder suffered their worst defeat in franchise history—an embarrassing 13-2 loss.
“The bottom line is that a lot of our guys, who we expect to step up, didn’t step up,” noted Thunder head coach Dave Allison, who saw his team manage just 22 shots on goal while the North Stars had 37.
“Does that detract from what they’ve done the whole year though? No,” he added.
“It just feels like a kick in the nuts,” Thunder captain Kurt Hogard, the team’s leading playoff scorer with three goals and five assists, lamented afterwards.
“They brought their hockey sticks and we brought our curling brooms, and they beat the hell out of us,” he added.
That they did, and it was fitting the North Stars pressed play to a song by Velvet Revolver entitled “Fall to Pieces” that could be heard blazing out of their dressing room for all the Thunder to hear: Every time I’m falling down/All alone I fall to pieces.
The score was 3-0 after just 15 minutes Friday night, and that’s when Allison decided to pull Gordon in favour of Jared Baldwin, whose last game was the overtime series winner against Dryden.
But he didn’t fare any better, allowing 10 more goals the rest of the way in front of one of the biggest crowds of the season at the Ice for Kids Arena.
“They scored on almost every turnover we had,” said Riley Dudar, who assisted on both Aaron Boyer goals (Dennis Morrison had the other two assists).
So how did it feel being part of what was the Thunder’s worst loss in franchise history?
“It sucks,” Dudar replied. “You don’t want to be a part of that, but it would be nice for people to say that we bounced back the next day and won it.”
After the game is when Allison (after having it relayed to him by Thunder GM Brent Tooknenay) told the players of the Boston Red Sox and the similar scenario they faced last fall against the N.Y. Yankees.
After losing the first three games of the ALCS (including a 19-8 shelling in Game 3), the Red Sox rallied to win four-straight to move onto the World Series, where they swept the St. Louis Cardinals.
“You always have a chance, but it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how people are going to remember this year’s edition,” said Allison. “Are they going to remember you for a 13-2 loss? Or are they going to remember you as battling until the very end.
“And I would choose battling until the very end,” he continued.
“The Red Sox came back and won the series against the Yankees, so it’s not over until it’s over, and we can still come back,” Dudar said.
Sorry, Mr. Dudar, but a 7-0 loss in Game 4 on Saturday night would end your team’s season—and the Thunder’s “Road to the Dudley” journey.
The score was not indicative of the play and neither was the North Stars’ sweep, Allison said, but he did admit Fort William deserved to win.
“They were a better team and in order to beat a better team, you have to have better habits,” Allison remarked. “And it’s difficult on my part to not get them to understand the urgency of getting better each and every day, and that’s what you have to do regardless of the endeavour.
“Other than in Boy Scouts or Cubs, you don’t get a badge for just showing up,” he stressed.
The game essentially was a wash from the get-go as the North Stars built a 4-0 lead after the first period.
But the Thunder showed restraint and class when faced with their dire situation, and showed feelings of admiration when they could have easily displayed emotions of resentment.
“Why do we want to turn it into a travesty? Why should we get mad at the North Stars because they played well and hard?” said Allison. “I mean, that’s the worst thing you can do.
“You should watch and try to emulate them.”
“They just seemed to bury every chance they got,” noted Josh McAndrew.
“And you’ve got to give them credit because they weren’t playing to win the SIJHL, they are playing to win the Dudley Hewitt Cup [which will be played in Georgetown at the end of the month].”
The Thunder didn’t deserve to win this series, and they did admit as much, but it would be cruel and unjust to remember them for those 13-2 and 7-0 losses.
Rather, they should be remembered as a team that didn’t quit no matter how dismal their situation was.
“I wanted to win more than anything else and so did a lot of the guys, but it just wasn’t to be and it hurts to see that stick with only four wins on it,” said Boyer, choking back tears.
“It hurts,” added McAndrew. “I saw other guys go through it [last year when the Thunder lost to the Ice Dogs in the playoffs] and you don’t really know what it’s like until it’s you.
“It just sucks and I can’t even describe how brutal this feels.”
Hard to describe, but easy to see.
Allison took Gordon to the side and said how proud he was of the way his starting goalie “battled and gave us what he could” after the passing of his grandmother over Christmas and then coming back just before the playoffs after missing almost a month due to health concerns, from which he still hasn’t fully recovered.
“He just kind of told me a little story,” recalled Gordon. “Dave has a lot of stories with meanings and morals behind every one of them, and he told me one regarding the battle I’ve been through and basically said he was proud of me.”
Then there was Martin Kloucek, who wrapped his arm around Allison and said, “Honest to God, you’re the best coach I ever had.” He then showed Allison the new generation’s “proper way” to shake someone’s hand.
And one could see the players slowly exit the locker-room walking like a child who had just been told there was no Santa Claus. It was over, and some took it harder than others.
“It’s tough to look back and see two years in Fort Frances just be over after a 7-0 loss and this is hard to take right now,” said Boyer, who had just played his last game in the junior ranks.
“I’m sad for the guys that aren’t going to have a chance to do that again,” added Gordon, who still has two years of eligibility left as a junior. “I really wanted to see those guys with smiles on their faces and have their last junior game be a win.”
One of those players Gordon was hoping to see with a smile was Ian Lockman, who strolled away from a junior career with the Thunder, where he was one of the team’s most popular players.
“I’m just sad, and there’s really not much left you can do. I’m going to be bored now,” said Lockman, who led the SIJHL in playoff penalty minutes with 105 in eight games.
And after Lockman left to get a ride with David Gooch in his ’88 Dodge Ram black pickup that had been decorated with the numbers of each player, the only person who remained was McAndrew.
Wearing a black suit with a black dress shirt, McAndrew pulled the table on which the players fixed their sticks into the dressing room, then two water bottle containers, closed the door, and locked it.
It would be the last time he would do such an act as a junior player.
“You don’t play the game to come in second. You go out there and try to win every night,” he said. “Some people say to go out there and have fun, but you don’t have fun unless you’re winning at this level.”