The Carolina Thunderbirds are at the end of a spectacular 2018-2019 season, their second in the six-team Federal Hockey League.
By press time, the team had a 45-5 record and 139 total points, 48 more than second-place Elmira late in the regular season. The highlight of the season was a 24-game win streak.
The coach of this minor-league juggernaut is Andre Niec, who was born in the Czech Republic and learned English before heading to the U.S. to eventually play for the Berlin River Drivers in Berlin, New Hampshire. Here, we talk to Niec, the first and, so far, only head coach for the 2-year-old Thunderbirds.
1. We’re curious. How did you become the first coach of the Thunderbirds?
“I was playing for the Berlin River Drivers [of the Federal Hockey League] when our coach left and I became player-coach [in 2016-2017]. Then, Barry [Soskin, majority coach of the Thunderbirds] reached out to me and asked me to coach the Thunderbirds last year.”
2. What’s the secret of the Thunderbirds’ success so far this season?
“We’ve had to deal with call-ups to higher leagues, as every minor league team does. We’ve had to adjust but the secret, I think, is that some players wanted to stay with me and win a championship. Some just wouldn’t go. Also, we picked up two good goalies last year, Frankie McClendon [Oakland, Calif.] and Christian Pavlas [Bratislava, Slovakia]. Christian is the best goalie in the league, and they’re among the players who came back. When we lost to the Watertown Wolves in the semifinals last year, a lot of them said they’d come back, and that was important.”
3. What has the success meant to you?
“It means a lot to me. I was the first coach in the league to get 24 wins [consecutively] and to break the record for the most wins in a season. I didn’t believe we’d win 24 games in a row, but we did. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved; I want to stand on top at the end of the season.”
4. You have players from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Russia. How has that helped the team?
“We have more foreign players because we wanted a mix of players from a lot of countries. Last year, we had one from Japan. We don’t care where they come from as long as they play good hockey. I’m looking for the right style, and that’s what we’ve achieved. Our style is hard hitting, with fast play and the best-conditioned players. We don’t give them much rest in practice. They say Europeans don’t hit, but ours do. Our Europeans have learned from the Canadians and Americans, and vice versa.
“I see my players as a family, and I make sure they do a good job. You have to sacrifice everything on the ice. Right now, we have the right mix of players. I’m not looking for the best players; I’m looking for the right players.”
5. What does this success mean for next season?
“A lot of players will move up or not come back. That’s expected. It’s natural to move on. A lot of [players] ask if I’m coming back next year. I don’t know; I don’t have a contract for next year, but I’m focused on this season. I can’t really say what’s going to happen next season.”