By Matt Stefano
On Thursday, March 30th, the Soo Thunderbirds hockey club hosted its 2017 Team Awards Banquet at The Grand Gardens in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
Two names that were mentioned the most during the evening, was forward Matt Caruso and defenceman Jake Behse.
ZOLTAN KOVACS SENIOR MEMORIAL TROPHY (Hardest Working Player) – BRANDON GORDON
“It feels great,” said Gordon “It’s a team sport and in the end I couldn’t have done it without these guys.”
Gordon, who served as the Thunderbirds No.1 goalie this year, set the new Soo Thunderbirds record for most career shutouts with 9, passing Frank Novello (1999-2001), who held the previous record with 7.
The Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan product, who had just completed his second season with the Thunderbirds, also had 5 shutouts this season, which tied the NOJHL record for most shutouts in a single season, joining Frank Novello (2001), Martin Perreault (2004), John Kleinhans (2012) and Garrett Forrest (2016).
JOHN L. COHEN MEMORIAL AWARD (Scholastic Player) – NOAH SOLINGER
“It feels pretty good,” said Solinger. “I’ve worked pretty hard with my studies all year.”
The T-Birds forward averaged over 85% this year as a student attending St. Mary’s College.
“I’m going to St. Mary’s College right now,” concluded the Abbotsford, British Columbia native. “I’m taking mostly math and language classes. To find time I mostly do my homework after practice. I make time to study and make sure it’s a priority for me.”
TED BROOKS MEMORIAL AWARD (Player Excellence In The Community) – RYAN MULLIGAN
“It’s an honour,” said Mulligan. “Anytime you can give back to the community, they do so much for us as an organization and it’s good.”
Mulligan, who played defence for most of the second half of the season, has been active in the community of Sault Ste. Marie, which included helping out with the Big Brothers Big Sisters Rake-A-Thon back in November, helping raise a total of $670.00 towards Big Brothers Big Sisters.
He also helped out with Christmas Cheer back in December.
FORDY VARCOE MEMORIAL AWARD (Most Sportsmanlike Player) – ZACH SENECAL
“To follow in the footsteps with Jaren Bellini & Mark Tassone, who both won it last year is a big honour and I’m glad to be part of this team,” said Senecal.
Senecal led the Thunderbirds in goals during the regular season with 33, and led the team in goals during the postseason with 4.
“I just come to the rink everyday and have fun getting ready to play hockey,” concluded the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native.
BEST DEFENCEMAN – JAKE BEHSE
“From the start of the year I helped myself to a high standard,” said the Thunder Bay, Ontario native. “I wanted to be a person that everybody could look up to in a good leadership role.”
This season, Behse led all Thunderbird defencemen in goals (6), assists (21) and points (27).
“Coming to the ice everyday, ready to work, putting my best effort forward and being very consistent has paid off,” concluded Behse. “We had a great group of guys this year and a lot of people doubted us from the start.”
JOE ROCCHETTA MEMORIAL AWARD (Top Scorer) – MATT CARUSO
Caruso, who captured this award for the second straight year, led the Thunderbirds in scoring this season with 70 points through 54 regular season games played.
JOEY MANCUSO AWARD (Rookie Of The Year) – WYATT VILLALTA and KEEGAN STEVENSON
Last year, the Joey Mancuso Award for the Thunderbirds rookie of the year was shared by twin brothers Darian and Drake Pilon, who both went on to play with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
It would be a share award for the second consecutive year, as it was announced on Thursday night that the Thunderbirds rookie of the year would go to defenceman Wyatt Villalta and forward Keegan Stevenson.
Villalta, who notched 2 goals and 8 points through 38 regular season games, also suited up for Team NOJHL at the Eastern Canada All-Star Junior A Challenge.
He also suited up for Team East at the 2017 CJHL Prospects Game.
“It’s something special,” said the Godfrey, Ontario native. “To win an award like that is a true honour. I figured that I’ve had a pretty good season and had a really good time with the boys.”
Sixteen year old forward Keegan Stevenson, who shared the award with Villalta, led all Thundebird rookies in scoring during the regular season with 35 points and was tied for the team lead with Zach Senecal and Austin Kozluk in postseason scoring with 4 points.
“It feels awesome being able to play with the older teammates and learning different things,” said Stevenson.
The Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario product was also selected by the Guelph Storm in the 6th round (102nd overall) during the 2016 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection.
“This year was awesome,” concluded Stevenson. “It helped me develop a lot with being able to play more physical in much faster game.”
PLAYERS’ PLAYER AWARD – JAKE BEHSE
“I think this is probably the biggest honour of them all,” said Behse, who was voted to win this award by his teammates. “It’s a huge honour since it’s voted upon the team.”
This marked Behse’s second team award during the evening.
SOO GREYHOUND AWARD (Most Valuable Player) – MATT CARUSO
For the past three seasons, the Soo Greyhound Award for the Soo Thunderbirds MVP, has been won by Thunderbird captains, such as Gavin Burbach (2014), Anthony Miller (2015) and Brett Jeffries (2016).
And for the fourth consecutive season, another Thunderbird captain would take home the MVP honour, as Matt Caruso was named this year’s team MVP.
“It’s a very big honour,” said the Thunderbirds captain. “I have my teammates to thank for all my success. My coaches have pushed me all year and helped me become the player that I am today.”
This was Caruso’s second team award during the evening.
(Photo credit to Matt Stefano)