Beat rolls on for Thunderbirds as banners, player advancements the name of the game
The Colorado Thunderbirds’ 16U AAA national championship team from the 2009-10 season was the first AAA national championship for any Colorado youth team at any level.
And since then, championships have become commonplace for all levels of the Thunderbirds organization.
Oh, you want player advancements, too? No problem.
The Thunderbirds boast an extensive list of former players that have moved on to the United States Hockey League (USHL), North American Hockey League (NAHL) and the United States National Team Development Program (NTDP), as well as players that have played NCAA Division I hockey, have been drafted by NHL teams and are now in the professional ranks.
Yeah, this is Colorado, too. Not exactly Minnesota, Detroit or Boston, but the Thunderbirds are no longer emerging as a perennial national powerhouse.
They are already there.
Last month, the Thunderbirds’ 16U AAA National team made it all the way to the semifinals of the USA Hockey Tier I Youth Nationals and in 2014, the same age group earned silver at the annual event.
“We proved that we were as good as any team at the (2016) national tournament,” said Thunderbirds director of hockey operations and 16U National coach Angelo Ricci. “We competed hard and put ourselves in position to have a chance to win the whole thing. We came up just a bit short, but the guys left everything they had on the ice.”
Ricci said by consistently making an impact at national tournaments, it’s easy to see why the Thunderbirds are looked at as the preeminent AAA youth program in the state.
This past season, the Thunderbirds added a new team to their program with the addition of a 20U team that played in the first-year Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL). Longtime organization goaltending coach Cam Clemenson coached the RMJHL team.
Clemenson said the growth the Thunderbirds have experienced in his time with the program has been astronomical.
“The T-Birds have grown a ton in the eight years that I have been with them,” Clemenson said. “The ways that they have grown are that we have 11U to 20U – a total of eight teams that gives us the opportunity to develop more kids at a high level.”
Clemenson has also come full circle in his role with the Thunderbirds. He actually played for Ricci many moons ago.
“I played for Angelo for Team Colorado at the Chicago Showcase and John Seymour was his assistant coach,” remembered Clemenson. “When I got done playing hockey at the age of 21, Seymour was the head coach for the Thunderbirds’ 15U team and asked me to be his assistant coach. Then three years in, Brian Ten Eyck, who was the program’s goalie coach at the time, took the Littleton Hawks director’s job. With him taking that job, Angelo asked me to become the program goalie coach. That’s my profession as I was a goalie, and I have been the program goalie coach since.”
Staying with Ricci, Clemenson has also been the assistant coach on the Thunderbirds’ 16U AAA National team for the past four years.
“Angelo has definitely given opportunities for me to grow as a coach,” boasted Clemenson. “If it was not for Ricci and Seymour giving me the opportunities that they did, I’m not sure where I would be coaching. I love being a part of the Thunderbirds program. Just love it.”
From a coaching standpoint, all the coaches follow the same direction.
“The best thing that I can say about this is that all of us coaches in the Thunderbirds focus on skill and developing all of our players – that’s the biggest thing,” noted Clemenson. “The big philosophy that we have is that all of us coaches are on the same page with developing the kid and the systems.”
Ricci said seeing numerous players advance to junior hockey and make college commitments, some in their 16U seasons, shows that the coaching slate he has assembled is second to none.
“The strength of our program is the number of high-quality coaches that we have,” said Ricci. “They are all true professionals that believe in hard work, an athlete that has a high compete level, skill development both on and off the ice and they all do their best to create an extremely positive and fun experience for each player. Plus, on the administration side of things, we have the best around in Kim Feno.”
“Seeing players move up means a lot to the program and I know as a coach, this shows that we are doing our job, which is to develop our players on and off the ice,” added Clemenson. “This also shows that our players are dedicated young hockey players. A lot goes out to them, as well, as they all want to be in our program. In my eyes, all of our alumni are equal. I can’t say that any are head and shoulders above because we develop all of our players to be good young men, from the ones that play at high levels of hockey to the ones that get everyday jobs.”
And with three Tier I state titles this season (14U, 16U, 18U) and two Rocky Mountain District championships (14U, 16U), what’s next for the Thunderbirds?
”We will always continue to look at ways to improve our hockey program,” Ricci said. “You can never be satisfied with where you are at. Any successful program must continue to build and plan for the future. Satisfaction and contentment is a one-way highway to mediocrity. With that being said, I am tremendously proud of the achievements on and off the ice that our hockey club experienced.
“We strive to be the best we can each and every day, and that will never change.”
BEHIND THE BENCH
The coaching staffs are in place as the Thunderbirds have announced their lineup for the 2016-17 season.
20U – Cam Clemenson (head coach), Nic Polaski (assistant)
18U – Kelly Hollingshead (head), Lev Cohen (assistant), Matt Anthone (assistant), Clemenson (goalie)
16U (2000/01) – Angelo Ricci (head), Brian Sutton (assistant), Clemenson (goalie)
15U (2001) – Nick Hantge (head), Michael Hantge (assistant), Clemenson (goalie)
14U – Dave Fromm (head), Cohen (assistant), Justin Waldron (assistant), Clemenson (goalie)
13U – Matt Frick (head), Waldron (assistant), Sean Bucher (goalie)
12U – Zach Blom (head), Curtis Duffus (assistant), Waldron (assistant), Buddy Blom (goalie)
11U – Nick Combs (head), Waldron (assistant), Michael Hantge (assistant), Clemenson (goalie)
Waldron is also the development coach for Pee Wee and Bantam teams.
NEW THUNDERBIRDS 10U ACADEMY
The Thunderbirds recently announced the Colorado Thunderbirds 10U Academy beginning in 2016-17. The team will practice 2-3 days a week with the possibility of 4-5 out-of-state trips and 1-2 local tournaments, plus local games.
The season will run from Sept. 13, 2016-March 4, 2017.
Practices will be Tuesday and Thursday from 5:45-7 a.m. at South Suburban Ice Arena and Saturday at a time to be determined at Old Foothills.
Coaches include Dave Fromm, Nick Combs, Justin Waldron, Zach Blom, Matt Frick, Nick Hantge, Michael Hantge and Kyle Hull, plus goalie coaches Cam Clemenson and Payam Sami.
Potential tournaments include one that the Thunderbirds will host in October, the Bauer Invite in Chicago in November, the Edina Classic in Minnesota in December, the National Cup in Buffalo, N.Y., in January and the Squirt Classic in Fargo, N.D., in February.
Tryouts are set for May 20 (4:30-5:45 p.m.) and May 21 (noon-1:15 p.m.) at the Ice Ranch. Cost is $50 and registration is available at www.tbirdhockey.org.
— Matt Mackinder