It’s a situation many Sault Ste. Marie hockey players can relate to.
After completing his final season of midget in the late-1970s, Carlo DiCandia didn’t want to hang up his skates. But he also didn’t want to leave his hometown.
“There were few options available,” he remembered. “It was like that for a lot of guys.”
Enter the Soo Thunderbirds. The team, then of the International Jr. B. League, proved to be the solution.
DiCandia laced up for the squad for three seasons between 1978 and 1981. Looking back more than three decades later, he has nothing but fond memories of those years.
“I enjoyed every minute of it, practices and games,” said DiCandia. “It was a real close knit group of guys. The further I get removed from those days, the more I appreciate them.”
During his stead, the Thunderbirds won league and playoff championships in all three seasons. Also noteworthy, the team used to play the Soo Greyhounds Major Junior squad twice per year – once at the Memorial Gardens, the other at the Rankin Area. In 1980, the TBirds won the game at their home rink and lost the other match by only a goal.
Much of the success was due to head coach Abbie Carricato. “He was demanding, but he brought out the best in us,” DiCandia said evenly.
The success was also due to the solid group of skaters assembled. The team featured several lines of players who would go on to higher levels of hockey.
The roster included the likes of Norm Schmidt (Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL), Manny Reinholtz (Germany, D1), Monty Beauchamp and Wayne Vetero (Lake Superior State University, NCAA), Ron Zuke (Michigan Tech, NCAA), Mike O’Connor (Michigan Tech and the British National League), Ken Hruska and Randy Sandvik (University of Western Ontario, CIS), and Dan Russell (St. Thomas University, CIS).
Also interesting, Thunderbird Darren Zack went on to became a professional slow pitch baseball player.
“We had a great group of guys,” said DiCandia. “We wanted to play for the Thunderbirds, and everyone wanted to win.”
And win they did. When DiCandia’s time with the team ended, he played a season with St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. After returning home, he started a family. When his kids began skating, dad began coaching.
DiCandia’s time behind the bench would span more than thirty years, with Sault Minor Hockey, the Soo Legion midgets – where he coached under the late Don Kurylo – and finally to the Soo North Stars midget club with bench boss Mike Hall.
During that time, DiCandia saw many of his players excel to higher leagues, including Rob Zettler (who played 569 games in the NHL), current NHL forward Matt D’Agostini, Paul Maurice (who would coach more than 15 years in the NHL), along with many Ontario Hockey League skaters such as Dylan King, Mike and Dave Quesnele, Chris Buonomo, Brett Thompson, Dean Howard, Mikey Sartoretto, and Los Angeles Kings draft pick and current Soo Greyhounds captain Colin Miller.
“It’s great seeing guys move up,” said DiCandia. “It gives me pride seeing them accomplish great things.”
While seeing his former players excel in hockey, he finds it equally rewarding when they find success off the ice. “It always nice when you see guys become upstanding citizens,” said DiCandia. “It’s great knowing you were involved in their life. What’s most gratifying is when a guy comes back to the rink years later and you talk about the good old days.”
Today, DiCandia is president of the Thunderbirds, having joined the organization in 2009 as its VP. While he helps run the club, which now competes in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, he still keeps in touch with most of guys from the days when he played.
“Everyone moved to different careers in different sectors, so having that network gives you a pulse on the community,” said DiCandia, now an account executive with Algoma Insurance Brokers. “That team feeling never goes away.”
The Thunderbirds will be honouring alumni during the team’s March 9 home game against the Abitibi Eskimos. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m. at the Essar Centre. The corner suite has been reserved for former players, who are invited to attend