It’s probably unfair to expect the Carolina Thunderbirds to recapture any of last year’s unprecedented magic.
Then again, why recapture anything when last season’s record-breaking campaign put the organization on the map? Now it’s up to the Thunderbirds to grow what they’ve built.
Last season was simply special. It ended in the second-year organization’s first Commissioner’s Cup championship in the minor-league Federal Professional Hockey League — now rebranded as the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL) — for Winston-Salem’s first hockey championship in 30 years. The Thunderbirds rode a 24-game win streak into the playoffs, the longest by any team in the league’s 10-year history, powered by goaltender Christian Pavlas — the reigning goaltender of the year — and Michael Bunn, last year’s playoff MVP. The team also withstood a four-game suspension of head coach Andre Niec, and ran away with the league’s best regular season record at 48-6.
“Everything clicked last season,” says Niec, who signed back on with the team this summer for his third season as head coach. “Players had a good understanding of what’s important and what has to be done to win a championship. We had that bonding in the locker room. The guys just wanted to work hard.”
Niec, 36, was ejected from an October 2018 game — and later suspended four games — for arguing with officials. Personal trainer and team interpreter Karolina Huvarova filled in, becoming the second woman to coach a men’s professional hockey team.
Add it to a wild list of instances that made last season one to remember.
“Last season was something special,” Niec says. “We broke every record there is to break in minor league hockey, in our league especially. My focus is on winning another championship.”
The FPHL has certainly changed in its most recent rebranding, with four new expansion teams in Battle Creek, Michigan; Columbus, Georgia; Danbury, Connecticut; and Harrington, Delaware. Its 10 teams now dot the country’s Eastern regions, the most since the league began operation in 2010. None of the FPHL’s original teams exist today.
Niec and the Thunderbirds, however, are once again starting from scratch.
Carolina is bringing back some of last year’s key pieces in the league’s next chapter, but lost a large portion of last year’s championship-winning squad — some to retirement, some to the expansion draft, some to other circumstances. The team added goaltender Patrik Polivka, a former Western Hockey League first-round draft pick, in the offseason, traded for defenseman Nathan Campbell from the Danville Dashers and return forwards Petr Panacek and Jiri Pargac, and defensemen Stanislav Vlasov and Jay Kenney.
“Some guys got better offers,” Niec says. “I had to rebuild the team.”
Success on the ice, it seems, and a renewed hockey interest in a region thanks to the recent success of the NHL’s Hurricanes, has triggered a swell in the ticketing office. The Thunderbirds have sold 1,271 season tickets (as of deadline) with less than a month before the start of the season, up from close to 1,000 season tickets all last season. Niec hopes the Thunderbirds’ success has started to catch on.
Another season like last would do the trick.
“If you look at it, when we had our winning streak last season, we got invited to a Carolina Hurricanes game,” Niec says. “The GM [Don Waddell] came to meet us, said he had heard about our record. ... It was news. Everybody was talking about it. I think we made a name for North Carolina, for Winston-Salem.”
Carolina opened Free Agent Camp on Oct. 11 and the season began Oct. 25 on the road against the Elmira Enforcers. The Thunderbirds open the Winston-Salem Fairground Annex against the expansion-team Danbury Hat Tricks on Nov. 8.