From the outside looking in, it would not be hard to look at the way things were going for the Adirondack Thunder towards the tail end of their 2019-20 campaign and assume that the unexpected early end to their season was a welcome one.
Certainly, a .452 winning percentage that was close to the Eastern Conference cellar, losses in their last five games, and seemingly little hope of earning a playoff berth in the North Division would check all of those boxes.
“Going into the year, those were not the plans to finish the way we did,” All-Star forward Mike Szmatula told FloHockey. “We expect to win there, and obviously that didn’t happen.”
However, while the way the year ended was, as Szmatula says, a “shock,” it doesn’t mean that anyone in the group was ready to throw in the towel on trying to turn things around.
“I don’t think anybody wanted to be done,” he said. “I don’t think we were eliminated (from playoff contention) at that point, so there was always something to play for. And, you never want to stop playing. Regardless of how well you’re doing or whatever, we all love the game of hockey. It wasn’t good for us to find out we weren’t going to be able to finish the season, and I’m sure a lot of other guys on other teams felt the same way, too. We all play this game because we love it and we’re passionate about it, and for something like that to happen — and to see what’s transpired since then — it’s been something different than I think anyone’s experienced.”
It’s that kind of positive attitude, even more so than a second straight 20-plus-goal season for the 28-year-old, that made it a no-brainer for head coach Alex Loh to bring him back as part of a mix of returnees and newcomers that the third-year bench boss hopes will get the Thunder’s fortunes once again headed in the right direction.
“I think we were a better team on paper than we ended up showing in the record last year,” Loh told FloHockey.
“That was certainly something we looked at as a group over the offseason; just talking to the guys that are coming back, they’re excited to get back to where it’s expected to be and where it needs to be . . . I’m excited with the character of the group. I think this year, we have a lot of guys who are very, very motivated and are excited to get after it. I think was a little bit of complacency last year, and maybe an expectation that things were going to go a certain way. I’m not sure that we were always working the right way towards that, and I include myself in that. This year, it’s a motivated group, but a younger group. We’ve made some transitions in some of the leadership group, so there’s a new core that will help.”
Loh pointed to the return of veteran blueliner Mathieu Brodeur — he was a standout on the Adirondack back end from 2015-16 to 2017-18 before parlaying that into playing overseas for the last two years — as a big reason for hope, both on and off the ice, that when the season does get going in early January, that things will be different.
The wildcard, of course, is the split-season schedule format for the ECHL this year — 13 teams will get going in December, with the other group waiting four weeks to play — which marks a unique challenge in that the teams starting up later will have a slightly reduced schedule, making it all the more important for that new leadership group to gel quickly.
In a press release, Thunder governor Ed Moore said Loh has “the full support of the Hockey Board of Directors,” while also adding his displeasure with the way last season unfolded as a whole.
“We recognize that the 2019-20 season did not meet our expectations, nor the expectations of our fan base,” Moore said. “We expect to be in the top echelon of the ECHL each season and compete well into the playoffs. We are not satisfied, nor is Alex.”
With that said, while the split-season format and ultimately a shortened year will be difficult, Loh is eager to get another opportunity to show, as Moore also said, that he’s “the right person” to get the Thunder to the top of the North Division standings.
“It’s better than nothing,” Loh said of the late start. “That’s where I’m at, and it’s where a lot of the guys are at as well. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to play in January. The league did a smart thing in allowing the teams that can play to play, and allowing the teams that weren’t going to be able to make it happen in December to start at a later date. It’s a good compromise, but we need to do what we need to do here.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.