CAPTURING the interest of their ever-growing fan base, 30 years ago, the first-year Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks went on to achieve the ultimate on-ice success.
Fresh off a first-round triumph over the Brantford Smoke in the 1992 Colonial Hockey League playoffs, the Thunder Hawks received another boost heading into the initial Colonial Cup final.
That came when the fourth place St. Thomas Wildcats, who dropped Game 1 of their semifinal, with the front-running Michigan Falcons by an 8-0 count, reeled off four straight victories, to take that series in five, which in turn gave the Lakehead squad home ice advantage in the best-of-seven affair.
Working alongside general manager, the legendary Gary Cook, Thunder Bay head coach Bill McDonald, as well as his assistant Larry Wintoneak and goaltender coach John Adams, the foursome overcame a slow start while continually tinkering with the line-up.
“I remember having a Christmas get together with the players, and I think we were in last place, offered McDonald.
“However, (Cookie) kept adding skill and toughness, so my job was to make them compete and stay together,” stated the well-liked bench boss. “We got better as we went along and bonded as a team. In the end, everything came together.”
Starting the final at the friendly confines of the Fort William Gardens, Thunder Hawks captain Mike Berger led the way to victory in Game 1.
Down 2-1 in the third period, the defenceman notched a natural hat trick, featuring two booming blasts from the point and a laser into an empty net, from the other end of the ice, with 27 ticks left on the clock, to secure a 4-2 come from behind victory.
Game 2 saw Terry Menard and Joe West chip in with two points apiece as part of a 5-2 triumph.
Heading to St. Thomas for the next two contests, the Wildcats pulled the first one out, 5-4 in overtime, on a Mark Karpen marker off a goal-mouth scramble.
Answering that, eventual playoff MVP, Gary Callaghan, collected a hat trick with the Thunder Hawks winning 5-3 and moving a decision away from the title.
Showing their series win against Michigan was no fluke, St. Thomas, under head coach Peter Horachek and goaltender Kevin Butt battled back to take Games 5 & 6 by 6-2 and 4-1 scores, to send it to a seventh and deciding contest.
Building on their momentum, St. Thomas skated out to an early two-goal lead in the first period, much to the chagrin of the 4,000-plus spectators jammed into the Gardens.
Late in the frame though, Everton Blackwin spun out of a crowd and fired one past Butt to cut the deficit in half.
After Hawks’ netminder Steve Hogg thwarted a Wildcats breakaway, Thunder Bay roared back with tallies from Menard and Bryan Wells to put them up 3-2 after 40 minutes.
An action-packed third saw St. Thomas strike twice on the power play, sandwiched around Blackwin’s second of the night, completing corner work by Bruce Ramsay and Todd Howarth, to send it to extra time.
In OT, the pace was fast and furious, with both teams trading chances.
Then on a play 16 minutes into the fourth period, goaltender Hogg left the puck behind the net for blueliner Brock Shyiak to rush it up the right side and move it over to Blackwin, who came across the blueline and fired an attempt towards the net that clipped off the inside of Butt’s pad and bounced in for his third of the night to give the Thunder Hawks the championship in stunning and dramatic fashion, while sending the hometown throng into a spontaneous roar of exuberance.
“It was a team that wasn’t built overnight, but one that was built over the course of a season,” summarized McDonald. “It ended up being a damn good one, for the great hockey fans of Thunder Bay.”
Fortunate to have played an off-ice role with the Thunder Hawks on the media relations side of things that first year, other members of the 1991-92 Colonial Cup-winning team included:
Gary Cook (GM); Bill McDonald (head coach); Larry Wintoneak (assistant coach); John Adams (goaltender coach); Petr Bares; Mike Berger (captain); Dan Bissonnette; Everton Blackwin; Gary Callaghan; Randy Cameron; Trevor Converse; Ransome Drcar; Steve Hogg; Todd Howarth; Barry McKinlay; Terry Menard; Cam Plante; Bruce Ramsay; Vern Ray; Brock Shyiak; Pat Szturm; Tom Warden; Bryan Wells; Joe West; Gaetan Joubert (trainer & equipment manager); Darrell Clarke (assistant equipment manager) & Bruce Rakoczy (director of marketing & public relations).