The Tillsonburg Thunder celebrated a senior men's hockey WOAA 'A' championship last spring, but the goal this season is to lift the WOAA 'AA' trophy, which they had won for the first time in 2014-15.
"I like that we have a lot more local guys this year," said Thunder president Mike Holly at Sunday's optional practice, noting the addition of new Tillsonburg, Langton and Ingersoll players.
The final roster had not been finalized as of Sunday, but it's getting there. The season is schedule to open Friday, Oct. 7 in Elora.
Tillsonburg's home opener vs Mapleton Minto 81s on Oct. 8 has been rescheduled to Oct. 29th at 7:30 p.m. The Thunder's new home opener is now Oct 22nd at 8:30pm vs Milverton Drives. "We apologize to all our fans for this is completely beyond our control! Please share this post!"
"We had 40 guys out skating in camp, total, and we've got a good returning core from years past," said Thunder GM Bill Ryan, noting the return of veteran Tillsonburg minor hockey grads like Nathan Peacock and Shane Balcomb.
The local flavour will be enhanced by the return of Chad Barclay, after a one-year hiatus, and new additions like Luke Van Moerkerke and Langton's Matt Pasztor, who played at UOIT.
"We've got three defencemen over 6-foot 4-inches," said Ryan.
"Did you see the monster out there tonight?" Holly smiled. "Brian Shaw, he played in Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)."
"He's not officially on a card yet, tonight, but he's going to be," said Ryan. "He finished up in St. Thomas with Barclay and Pasztor."
Ingersoll's Kurtis Lavis comes to the Thunder from the Junior B St. Marys Lincolns, with an over-age Junior C year in Norwich where he was defenceman of the year.
"I'm pleased with what we have so far," said Ryan. "There are a couple of pieces that aren't here yet, that I feel will be really good. I'm expecting over the course of the season there will be a few surprise returnees from our previous championship season. At least that's the goal. They're just not ready yet, not available yet, because of other commitments."
The plan is to be in the mix at the top of the WOAA, which has been realigned to provide a new unbalanced North-South schedule. In addition to its traditional South Division rivals, Tillsonburg will entertain Durham and Mapleton-Minto, who were 1-2 in the North last year, and Elora.
"I think it will be better for the fans, they'll see a few teams they normally don't see," said Ryan.
"We'll see Clinton once, Seaforth once..." said Holly.
"Seaforth's going to be a tougher team to play, they've picked up some players," said Ryan.
The top eight teams will vie for the WOAA 'AA' championship in reformatted playoffs. The bottom six teams will play off in a lower tier WOAA 'A' championship, and the preliminary round-robin has been eliminated.
"We have no intention of going A this year," said Holly.
Holly and Ryan both agreed Clinton is the team to beat following the Radars' 22-2-1 dominant championship season.
"I saw them last night and they're good," Ryan nodded. "I don't know if they're 'as good' as they were last year. Their back end is weaker, but their forwards are still really, really good. I still think they are going to be the team to beat. I think we're still a few pieces from being able to compete right up there with them.
"Obviously, in senior hockey things can change pretty quick from one year to the next."
Two years ago the Thunder (18-5-1) had swept Clinton (15-7-2) in the playoffs, but it was four one-goal games.
"That was probably the best series we played," said Ryan.
"In the first round," Holly recalled. "One bounce here, one bounce there..."
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Friday, Oct. 7: Tillsonburg at Elora Rocks, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 15: Tillsonburg at Durham, 5 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 21: Tillsonburg at Tavistock, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 22: Milverton at Tillsonburg, 8:30 p.m. (STUDENT NIGHT)
Saturday, Oct. 19: Mapleton-Minto at Tillsonburg, 7:30 p.m. (Memorial Arena) - rescheduled
Saturday, Nov. 5: Durham at Tillsonburg, 7:30 p.m.
Longtime pre-season rivals, Tillsonburg and Tavistock took the rivalry to a new level this year with the creation of the Oxford Cup, a two-game, home-and-home, total-goals series.
Tavistock won 7-2 in Tillsonburg on the 23rd, which meant the Thunder had to win by six in Tavistock Saturday. Trailing 8-2 with 31 seconds left in the game, the Royals called a timeout and pulled their goalie for a deep faceoff, trying to push for the late 'tying' goal.
Desperation hockey ensued, and Tillsonburg held its six-goal lead to win the inaugural Oxford Cup, 10-9.
The Thunder did not charge admission for the Sept. 23rd exhibition, but accepted donations of food items or cash for the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.
"We collected $190 cash and 50 pounds of food, all donated by fans," said Holly, thanking the people of Tillsonburg for their support.
"St. Vincent de Paul's runs a soup kitchen - they feed about 80 people every week. They do a full meal. It was at St. Paul's while our church (St. Mary's) was being renovated, but now it's back."